Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen
The world of traveling circuses during the Great Depression is explored through the lens of the story of Jacob Jankowski, a newly orphaned veterinary student who hops a train and finds himself joining the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Straddling the line between working man and performer, Jacob tends to the animals and forms a tentative friendship with both the men of the Squadron and the show’s star performer, Marlena. He is shocked by the disparity between the two classes and dismayed by the cruelty and shrewdness of the show’s owner, Uncle Al. Soon Jacob is moving in and out of both worlds and falling deeply in love with both the animals and Marlena. Unfortunately, Marlena is married to the alternately charming and viscious August, who runs hot and cold with every person and animal he comes into contact with.
Over time, Jacob makes peace with his unwilling bunkmate, Walter/Kinko, a dwarf and clown who lives with his beloved dog, Queenie in a trailer with Marlena’s prized horses. As the Depression deepens, every one involved begins to suffer and workers begin to disappear. Rumors of redlighting abound, and Jacob and Walter are forced to hide working man Camel who has developed “jake leg”. Despite the troubled financial times, Uncle Al takes advantage of the misfortunes of another traveling circus and acquires a large elephant and trailer. Tempers run high, however, when no one is able to control the bull. The performers and working men resent the expense, especially when the new beast is unable to perform in any shows due to her unruly behavior. August, as head trainer, is soon taking out his frustrations on the elphant, Rosie. Jacob tries to intervene and finds himself in the line of fire more than ever. While struggling to find a safe haven for Camel, Jacob must also try to protect Marlena and Rosie from August and keep his growing love for Marlena secret. The pressure temporarily eases when it is discovered that Rosie only understands Polish. Jacob helps August learn the commands and the show is revitalized with the promise of her performance.
Marlena begins working on her act with Rosie and a suprise for August to celebrate their success. Her plans backfire, however, and August flies into a rage in which he hurts both Rosie and Marlena. Incensed, Jacob confronts August and the two fight. Following their altercation, Jacob helps Marlena move into a hotel and is coerced into agreeing to help Uncle Al reunite the feuding couple. Marlena and Jacob make plans to run away together once Camel and Walter can be safely removed from the train, but their plans are interrupted when Uncle Al’s hence men red light several men including Walter and Camel over a trestle. Jacob is warned by another working man that several of the red-lighted men have survived and are coming to seek revenge. Before Jacob can warn Marlena, however, the show begins and Jacob is horrified when he hears the Disaster March, a warning to all circus folk that something huge and terrible is happening. Jacob runs to find Marlena and finds all of the animals of the menagerie released and frightened. As the circus descends into chaos, Jacob finds Marlena with August and Rosie, and just as more people and animals stampede past, Jacob watches in terror as Rosie removes her stake from the ground and plunges it into August’s head. Uncle Al is nowhere to be found and another circus rolls in and begins dismantling what is left of the Benzini Brothers show. Marlena and Jacob quickly lay claim to the show horses, a chimp, and Rosie. When their claim on Rosie is called into question, Jacob convinces them that the bull is useless because it does not obey direction. The couple and the animals run off to join Ringling where they spend many happy years performing and making a family. The entire story is told through a frame of an elderly Jacob in a nursing home watching as a circus sets up outside. The adult Jacob is dismayed about growing old and upset when his children forget to take him to the circus. He decides to take himself and meets a circus man who is fascinated by his stories and allows him to hop on until he can no longer be of use.
Readers of all ages will enjoy the story, both despite and because of the historical context. Boys will respond to the adventure and intricacies of circus life; girls will enjoy the forbidden love. Animals lovers will find Jacob’s love for the animals touching and realistic despite some harsh conditions and treatment. The distinction between performers and workers is fascinating and disturbing and Gruen does an excellent job of illustrating both sides of the situation. Gruen’s frame of Jacob in the retirement home is effective and the ending is romantic and satisfying. Jacob is believable and particularly well drawn in old age. Her descriptions of circus life, shows and culture are well documented and enhanced by vintage photographs taken from the collections of several large circuses. The end notes help to define the inspiration and separate fact from fiction. I found the story to be believable and disturbing. Crude language and adult situations as well as historical perspective and harsh conditions make for a high school read only.