A young veterinary student drops out of Cornell University and ends up joining a traveling circus during the Depression. It didn’t sound like the sort of book I’d be terribly interested in but I was wrong. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in a long time.
The story is told in flashbacks. Jacob Jankowski is an elderly man in a nursing home. When the circus comes to town, he’s inexplicably infuriated when another resident of the home claims to have carried water for the elephants. We discover that Jacob knows the man is lying because he once worked with an elephant, and the great creatures drink such massive amounts that no one person can carry enough water for them. As a reader, I found myself rooting for Jacob both in his old age and in his youth. He’s a feisty, cantankerous narrator whose story grabs you by the throat in both time frames.
In his past the fact that Jacob doesn’t actually have a degree in veterinary medicine means nothing: in a world of illusion, he’s claimed as the Ivy League veterinarian to the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It’s the young man’s first lesson in the strange world of a traveling show. This book has it all: murder, intrigue, passion, page-turning pacing and great characters. However, what makes the novel unique is the gritty, atmospheric backdrop of a grade B train circus, a world author Sara Gruen recreates brilliantly, both with words and with black-and-white photographs at the beginning of the chapters.
The circus had a hierarchy with the performers at the top and the roustabouts at the bottom. While the performers always received their salaries, roustabouts were often not paid for months, working only for the food and makeshift shelter they were given. If the circus was having a bad run and couldn’t afford to feed so many mouths, crew members were “red-lighted”: tossed off the train in the middle of the night, hopefully when the train slowed for a red light as they came into a town. Sometimes, the tossers didn’t bother to wait for a red light. It was a violent subsistence level life and yet it was better than starving in those lean years which is why Jacob himself remained, despite his ill-defined status somewhere between performer and lowly workman.
He also stayed because he fell in love with the animals and the magic of the show. The dark foundations of the circus world supported a gorgeous, exciting spectacle that fascinated both its audience and its denizens. Let yourself be drawn into the magic, even as you you’re educated about its illusory nature by this most spectacular book!