Have you ever read a book that made you question your memories? Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen did just that for me in opening my eyes to the dark side of circus life. What I remembered as a bright, engaging performance as a kid could be the tough life that is illustrated in this book. Although today our society and protection laws today are much different than they were during the Great Depression, it is still scary that these conditions did exist back then.
This story is told via the memories of Jake Jankowski, a nursing home resident that is in his early 90’s, who although old and cantankerous, has a perfectly clear memory of the younger years of his life, most of which occurred during the Great Depression. He begins his tale as a 23-year-old, studying at Cornell University to become a veterinarian, when he learns that both of his parents were killed in a car accident. Furthermore, his father saved what little money he had and mortgaged his home to send Jake to school, making the loss even more devastating and causing Jake to sink into a depression. He runs away, and climbs aboard a train, which happens to be a circus train belonging to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Eventually hired to take care of the circus animals due to his veterinary training, Jake begins to work for the circus, developing a tentative relationship with August, the head trainer, and his wife Marlena. August is known as a brutal and abusive husband and he often abuses the animals, especially Rosie the elephant. Jake eventually falls in love with Marlena against his better judgement, and sleeps with her once she runs away from August. Uncle Al, the owner of the circus, discovers this and issues Jake an ultimatum: get August and Marlena back together, or else many of Jake’s friends in the circus will be thrown off the moving circus train (this is known as “red-lighting”). Will Jake give in to this demand, knowing that sending Marlena back to August will certainly put her in harms way? Will he be able to survive now that Uncle Al and August know of his transgression?
It is absolutely no wonder how this book made it on to the New York Times bestseller list. Vivacious characters, rich settings, and one hell of a tumultuous love affair, and you have the perfect makings for a thrilling read. Gruen is a gifted story-teller; the ability to turn detailed research into a breathtaking reading experience is not often found, but Gruen was able to do this extremely well. In real life, the circus is a wondrous, larger than life experience, and it’s no small feat that Gruen is able to translate those whimsical feelings to the page. Not only do you get to see the “fun” side of the circus, but you’re given a front row seat to the grueling behind-the-scenes lives of the workers and performers. It’s amazing how horrible the conditions were, and how cruel some owners were not only to those in the show, but to the animals! As an animal lover there were parts of this book that absolutely killed me to read. I had to put it down, walk away, and take a breather at certain parts. (I find that I lose my patience with animal abuses, and need to step back and regroup before continuing).
Overall, Gruen’s story was gripping and unique. Her intense research, combined with an interesting topic and compelling story made this book a delight to read and an easy adaptation to a feature film (which was also excellently done!) If you’re looking for something that will really pull you in and take you to a different time, Water for Elephants is your best bet.
5 out of 5 Stars
This is my twenty-second completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Algonquin Books (2007)
Paperback 350 pages