Jacob Jankowski, the narrator of Water for Elephants, is so old he can’t remember his exact age—ninety something he tells the reader in the first sentence. He also can’t remember all the names of his grandchildren, the offspring of his five children. He’s often left sitting alone in his wheel chair in the hallway of his assisted living center with only his memories to keep him company. He seems to delight in being as obstinate as he can with the staff who tend to him. But beneath his prickly exterior is a sweet, sentimental old man who takes us back to his twenty-third year. He is about to graduate from Cornell Veterinary Medicine School when an accident happens that changes the course of his life and takes him on a fascinating journey with a traveling circus.
Water for Elephants has been on my reading list since it became a bestseller in 2006 and I finally read it last week. The author, Sara Gruen, is a wonderful storyteller and has incorporated spell-binding details of the old circus days from the Depression era. In the author’s note, Gruen explains that after seeing a photograph of a traveling circus from the 1920s, she became fascinated by the subject. She bought an armload of books on traveling circuses and spent over four months researching and visiting circus museums to prepare for writing the book.
It’s a compelling and poignant story that alternates between Jacob’s reflections on growing old to his youth, when runs out on his medical exams and jumps a train. The train belongs to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth which, in reality, was a third-rate traveling show that desperately needed a vet to care for their animals.
The book has all the elements of a great story: romance, mystery, violence, animals, and vivid characters that play out in a traveling circus on a train making one-night stands at small towns across the mid-west. The odd collection of characters are memorable: Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer; Camel and Kinko, Jacob’s bunkmates in the railroad car; and of course, Rosie, the elephant who seems untrainable until Jacob discovers the secret to reaching her. I couldn’t put it down, and yet I didn’t want it to be over. Gruen has such affection for her crotchety old narrator that she had me cheering for him by the end of the story. Water for Elephants has one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever read.
I can see how Gruen got sucked into her research and ultimately into writing her book. The circus culture has its own caste system, language, and rituals that made for a fascinating learning experience of both the circus and Depression era. As I read the vivid scenes, I imagined this book as a movie and learned that the film rights were bought by Fox. I can’t wait to see who plays Jacob and Marlena.