This week I read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen for the second time. I wanted to re-read it before seeing the movie. I am so happy I did because it is such a well-written book. My book club read it about three years ago, and it was one of the best book discussions we have ever had! Some of you probably have a keeper shelf: books you will keep and revisit for the rest of you life. Water for Elephants is definitely on my keeper shelf, and if it is not part of your library yet, it really should be.
Water for Elephants is basically about the train circus culture during the Great Depression. Gruen highly researched this topic for the book, and I appreciate the attention to detail she shares with her readers: the language (or slang) used by circus folk; the unspoken but diligently followed rules between the workers and performers in circuses; the tragedy of those affected by "jake leg," or paralysis from drinking Jamaican ginger extract; hobo jungles and speakeasies; and the hunger and deprivation of the era. Part of the book takes place in the present-day as the book's protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, is eagerly anticipating the arrival of a circus down the block from his assisted living home. Most of the story is told in flashback about his adventures when he was a young man working as a veterinarian for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth during the summer of 1931. When Jacob's story begins, he is sitting for his final exams during his senior year at Cornell. He is studying veterinary medicine, and during one of his exams, his professor interrupts him to tell him that his parents have been tragically killed in a car accident. His father, also a veterinarian, mortgaged his home and practice to pay for Jacob's Ivy League education. For many months folks paid his father in beans and eggs, so the bank gets everything because the entire estate is mortgaged. Jacob is so distraught he cannot sit through his exams, so he begins walking until he meets a circus train and hops aboard. He is soon hired to look after the circus's menagerie.
The antagonist in this book is the circus's animal manager, August Rosenbluth. He is a cruel, psychotic, paranoid schizophrenic. He is married to the beautiful Marlena, the star of the circus's horse act. Marlena and Jacob meet, and it is love at first sight for both of them. When the circus's owner buys an elephant, Jacob, Marlena and August must work together to train Rosie for the new elephant act. The elephant does not understand English: she only answers to Polish commands, and Jacob is fluent in Polish. He tutors August in simple Polish commands and trains with Marlena, Rosie, and August for several weeks until the act is perfected. This is not a great situation because Marlena and Jacob are growing closer, and August is a sadistic jerk. I hate him. I hate him more than almost every other fictional character I have ever encountered in a book. The couple must also endure one of the most horrible circus disasters of all time.
Please read this book if you haven't. I have been meaning to read some of Sara Gruen's other books (especially Riding Lessons and Flying Changes since we are horse people), but I have not gotten around to it yet. I have also heard that her latest book, Ape House, is amazing. Have any of you read Ape House yet? I would love to hear what you think about Water for Elephants, too.
Until next time...