Author, Sara Gruen is an excellent novelist. I read Water for Elephants a few years ago and from time to time, I reread my favorite novels. This novel is one of them. While I enjoyed the movie with Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, the novel is far better.
Sara’s research on traveling Circuses during great depression is richly detailed without overtaking the essence of the story or characters. The novel opens with ninety year old Jacob Jankowski ensconced in a dreary nursing home. He’s grumpy and taciturn. The food is bland and the old ladies are to him, a gaggle of hens. More and more, Jacob finds his thoughts turning to the past and the life he once lived long ago as a circus vet. Jacob remarks that he is ninety or ninety-three, but at his age, he is not longer counting. We are drawn into his memories and so the story begins.
When Jacob’s parents are killed in an auto accident, he is forced to leave his last year at Cornell where he’d been studying to become a verternarian. Penniless, he hits the road and hops a train that happens to be the Benzini Brothers traveling circus. He is hired as the show’s vet.
Jacob faces danger on a daily basis, not only because of his growing attraction to Marlena, the beauty who is the star equestrian act of the circus, but because of her husband, August, a ring master who is a bully and quick with a jealous, evil temper. These are hard times and circuses are failing. The boss, Big Al, who decides the life and death of many of the hired hands, desires an elephant, a trained elephant that can bring the rubes (hapless townspeople) into the big tent.
Big Al gets his elephant. Her name is Rosie and she doesn’t seem to understand any directions at all. She’s sweet, but gets into trouble. August, the bad tempered husband of Marlena, cruelly beats Rosie to get her to perform. Jacob finds that Rosie does not understand English. Her former trainer was Polish. Together, Jacob and Marlena strive to protect and save Rosie. August sees their attraction and attempts to get Jacob Red-lighted, which means to be thrown of the moving train at midnight. No spoilers here.
Water for Elephants is a fascinating read, filled with danger, acts of evil, overwhelming kindness, and enduring love.
I highly recommend this wonderful novel.