Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tempting Reading: WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen

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!


JoAnn said...

Oh, I must read this book! (Which sounds a bit along the lines of The Devil in the White City, which I loved.)

One of the most memorable books of my childhood was Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with the Circus, a tragic story about a little run away boy. My mother bought it to cheer me up while I was in bed with pneumonia, and it had such a sad ending, I just sobbed and sobbed, which wasn't exactly what she was going for. LOL

Despite my then agent's and HQ's cautionary advice that "circus books don't sell", I once wrote a traveling circus book myself (My circus, which didn't have animals, was billed as the Peter and Wendy Flying Circus and Penguin Extravaganza.) I had a grand time writing that book, though, alas, their prediction turned out to be true. (I guess sometimes those HQ focus groups get it right.) Sales weren't nearly as strong as my other Temptations.

When I was a child, whenever the circus would show up in our small, remote western town, everyone would get up to meet the 4:30 a.m. arrival of the train and watch the elephants walk through the darkened streets to the fairgrounds. I think that may be when my lifelong love of elephants began.

For years, when my son was little, we'd go to Ringlings and sit in the very front row and although he had a grand time, I found it a little depressing seeing up close how tattered all the costumes were, and the big holes in the beautiful girl's fishnet stockings. Which, of course, hinted at one of the things that's always fascinated me about circuses. . . that dark foundation to the gorgeous spectacle you mentioned.

Thanks for the recommendation! I'm off to order it now!

Nancy Morse said...

This sounds like a book I'll definitely read. There's something about the circus that both enfuriates me (animals doing stupid tricks and allegations of animal abuse), but I also have a lot of fun memories about the Ringling Brothers Circus from my childhood. One of my favorite circus memories is when the giraffe sneezed on my mother. Gross! But we laughed our butts off.

JoAnn said...

Nancy, the animal thing is why I left animals out of my fictional circus. The penguin extravaganza involved circus members doing an MGM type dancing routine in penguin costumes.

Gee, considering I wrote that book in about 1988, was I ahead of my time with dancing penguins, or what? LOL

I just ordered the book and plan to read it on the plane to PASIC.

Nancy Herkness said...

Gosh, I'm so flattered that my review is prompting you guys to buy the book!

JoAnn, I love your Penguin Extravaganza. I wonder why circus books aren't big sellers in romance? Maybe because of those holes in the pretty ladies' stockings. We romantic types want our illusions intact at the end of the book.

Nancy, I cracked up about the giraffe sneeze. I once got pooped on by a large seagull and my children found that equally hilarious.

Hope you guys like the book as much as I did!

Marg said...

I agree that this is definitely a fantastic book! Very enjoyable!

Colleen Thompson said...

Toby Tyler rocked, JoAnn. I love that as a kid.

I wanted to run away and stand on the backs of the white horses with their pink plumes. Sadly, Stephen King got to me first, scarring me for life against (shiver) clowns. (Ok, I was scared of them before, too.)

Even the Burger King guy freaks me out, though Ronald McD isn't too bad.