Monday, July 21, 2008

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

In the throws of the Depression and Prohibition, Jacob Jankowski is about to finish veterinary school when both his parents are in a fatal car accident. Jacob learns his parents were in significant debt, and thus he is left with literally nothing. So he jumps the Benzini Brothers circus train and joins on as their vet. While the owner of the circus is thrilled to have a vet - for status reasons, Ringling Brothers have a vet, not for the sake of the animals - Jacob's traveling partner, Kinko/Walter the dwarf clown, isn't so thrilled to have him aboard. Prior to Jacob's arrival, Walter had the horse car all to himself; sharing isn't his idea of a good time.

Because of the country's economy, circuses are folding right and left. Those circuses still standing negotiate to take the animals and supplies from the extinct circuses. In one of these negotiations, the Benzini Brothers acquire a bull elephant named Rosie who only understands Polish.

In addition to caring for the animals, Jacob falls head over heals in love with the liberty horse performer, Marlena. However, Marlena is married to August who manages all the performing animals for Benzini Brothers and has an incredible temper at times. So Jacob is forced to admire Marlena while having to work with her day in and day out.

Jacob's tales are told by himself at 90 or 93 - he can't recall exactly how old he is - in flashbacks. The book oscillates back and forth between the 20-something Jacob in the circus and the 90-something Jacob in the retirement home. The 90-something Jacob is beginning to forget things and names and places, but he remembers his days in the circus very clearly. Gruen created the events of Jacob's memory by piecing together actual circus events from history.

Gruen has an incredible talent for portraying the aged Jacob. The young Jacob is well portrayed as well - and idealizing, compassionate, naive young man, but the emotion she evokes from the reader for the elderly Jacob is amazing. He is a crotchety old curmudgeon to those around him, but his fears about forgetting, the hurt he feels because none of his children or grand children would take him in and opted instead to put him in the assisted living facility, it is all very realistic. So you can't help but love Rosemary, the nurse, who seems to have a keen awareness of the depth of this mean old guy.

I have to admit, however, that my favorite character in this book was Rosie, the bull elephant. Gruen does a fantastic job of bringing out the depth of her character with no words from Rosie whatsoever. The elephant is such an amazing creature and that comes out vividly in this novel.

The plot of Water for Elephants was a little diluted at times. For example, I felt, the storyline with Camel kind of detracted from the main idea. While it did provide some development for Jacob's character, showing him to be compassionate, and it brought in the horror of the "bad Jake" epidemic during that time, the story would have been just as strong and thorough without Camel. The Biblical allusions to Jacob enhance the plot, though. There aren't many, but they do add to the novel's dimension.

I am an animal lover, and while I enjoyed this book thoroughly, it reminded me of how atrocious circuses are to animals. I was also devastated to read the author's notes at the end of the book and learn Thomas Edison was responsible for carrying out a death sentence and electrocuting an elephant.
I've had this book in my TBR pile for some time now, and I'm glad I finally got around to it. It was a quick read, entertaining and enjoyable.


steph ruther November 5, 2014 at 11:48 PM  

I loved this book. I could not put it down, because I was in such
suspense about what would happen next. I particularly love the
storyline of the character as an old man in a nursing home - having
worked in nursing homes, the descriptions are spot on. I laughed out
loud at his antics, and cried when characters I had grown to love were
lost to tragedy. I have never read a book where an elephant is a main
character and pivotal to the story. All I can say is "WOW."
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