by Sara Gruen
Reader’s Choice 8/07
Writer Sara Gruen certainly knows how to get her readers’ hearts pumping fast! She sets the Prologue to her 2006 novel, “Water for Elephants” just outside the big top of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth where the ear-splitting music and thunderous applause is suddenly halted by a stampede of animals tearing through the crowd, making the ground vibrate with its rumble “on a register lower than noise”.
So once she has her readers’ attention, Gruen begins Chapter One by introducing her major character, Jacob Jankowski, who is either 90 or 93 years old—he’s not sure any more. He finds himself stuck in a crumpled, frail body sliding his walker along the corridors of the nursing home where he’ll live out his last days. Jacob comes upon some women at a window who are watching a circus set up. Just one glance at the red and white striped tent is enough to get the old boy’s heart going so fast he grabs for his chest and the ladies call for a nurse. But the cause of his excitement is a wave of memories and not cardiac arrest.
Gruen skillfully balances chapters told from the perspective of the irascible 90-something Jacob with those from the perspective of a naïve Jacob who’s seven decades younger one fateful year.
The young man’s story takes place in 1931 during the dark times of the Great Depression. Twenty-three year-old Jacob is just about to get his degree from Cornell’s veterinary school when he is told about the tragic accident that leaves him an orphan, with no money, no promised job in partnership with his father and all the debt from his education. A fit of grief and anger propels him to run away from his responsibilities, and in the process he leaps onto a train bound for wherever. That action determines his new path as he unknowingly lands on the train of the Benzini Brothers circus. He’s quickly put to work on menial jobs but when the bosses learn he’s an almost-veterinarian, he becomes the official doctors to their menagerie.
Gruen had never been to a circus before she began this book. The idea was born when she purchased a vintage photograph of a circus and was so taken with it that she began to read more about the era of the traveling circuses in the early 20th century. The stories she discovered were so wacky and colorful that she knew she wanted to make a circus the setting of her next novel.
She creates a remarkably real sense of circus life, with details drawn from her in-depth research of it. Her language is authentic; “rubes”, “roustabouts” and “cooch tent” flow easily through her sentences. She told an online interviewer she feels fortunate to have interviewed some circus folks—they’re reluctant to talk to outsiders and used to hiding from money men and law enforcement—and to bring the characters Jacob encounters to life.
The inexperienced young man shares living space with Walter the dwarf and his beloved dog Queenie. He fears the powerful, ruthless impresario Uncle Al. He is at first taken under the wing of the charismatic but mercurial trainer August, but falls in love with his wife, the young performer Marlena—a situation that is both thrilling and life threatening for the young man. Yet the most unforgettable character may be Rosie the elephant who finally takes an untenable situation into her own hands, or rather her own trunk.
As Gruen hinted at in the beginning of her story, “Water for Elephants” gives readers the same drama, thrills, goose bumps and joy we would experience if we were all under the big top.