Water for Elephants
By Sara Gruen
Published 2007, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Paperback, 335 pages
As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.This is one of those books that I read because I loved the movie first. So, I was quite surprised when I read how the book begins - with the murder of one of the main characters. When I further realized that August does not own the Benzini Brothers, I began to see the movie as its own story separate from the book.
Jacob is by far the most interesting character of the book, especially since he tells the story as an old man in a nursing home - and has the wisdom and experience to go with his age. His emotions are infectious and I longed to sit down with him and listen to all of his stories in person way before I finished the book.
August is the kind of villain that is confusing in his evil deeds - he has schizophrenia - which makes it somewhat unfair to dislike him so much. His irrational behavior has been exploited for the almighty dollar by Uncle Al - but the real villain tends to fade into the background.
Marlena is beautiful to the point of angelic, very little of what she does can be considered wrong in any way, as she is a victim struggling for freedom for most of the book. She approaches August's mood swings with the same caution due a wild animal, and remains faithful to him despite her personal feelings, and does not leave until he first betrays her. Considering how women today will leave their husbands for any reason, I admire her strong morals.
The background is set during the Great Depression, which made for many intense situations as the circus struggled to profit, as well as the survival of the cast of characters. Though I studied this period in American history, the direct experience gave me a clearer idea of the desperation of people alive during this time - how easily morals could be put on hold for the sake of another mouthful of food or another coin in the pocket. So many men of the circus would work without pay for the promise of another meal and unending hope that life could still improve.
Rosie, the elephant, is also one of the most fascinating characters in the book. She proved to be only one example of how animals were exploited to the point of cruelty for profit. I could not help wondering where the animal activists were.
Needless to say, this book sparked many conversations and inspired many moments of personal contemplation for me. I loved this book, and I highly recommend it.
The Cover: This was the cover that was on my copy of the book, though I think I would have preferred the original cover. Though it matches the movie, there are many things here that contrast with the book - the couple's hair colors and Rosie's headpiece are the most obvious.
Favorite Quote: “When you are five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties, you know how old you are. I'm twenty-three you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties, something strange starts to happen. It is a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I'm--you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you are not. You're thirty-five. And then you're bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it's decades before you admit it.”
Read For: Alex Awards Challenge, Just for Fun Challenge