Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Water for Elephants is a historical novel by Sara Gruen, written as part of National Novel Writing Month.
Jacob Janowski’s luck had run out―orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was the Great Depression and for Jacob the circus was both his salvation and a living hell. There he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but brutal animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this group of misfits was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.
Water for Elephants – Over 10,000,000 copies in print worldwide
#1 New York Times Bestseller
A Los Angeles Times Bestseller
A Wall Street Journal Bestseller
A Newsday Favorite Book of 2006
A USA Today Bestseller
A Major Motion Picture starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz
The New York Times Review
On our first date, my husband took me to see Tod Browning’s “Freaks,” a 1932 horror film with a distinctly Diane Arbus feel that takes a voyeuristic delight in dwarfs, fat ladies and other sideshow improbabilities. Sara Gruen’s arresting new novel, “Water for Elephants,” explores similar subject matter — the pathetic grandeur of the Depression-era circus. And like Browning, Gruen infuses her audacious material with a surprisingly uplifting strain of sentimentality.
“Water for Elephants” begins violently and then veers into weirder terrain. Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student at Cornell, discovers that his parents have been killed in a car accident. Aimless and distraught, he climbs aboard a train that happens to be carrying the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, and inveigles a job as an animal doctor. His responsibilities draw him into the unpredictable orbit of August Rosenbluth, the circus’s mercurial menagerie director, and his beautiful wife, Marlena, whose equestrian act attracts enthusiastic crowds.
Jacob immerses himself in the bizarre subculture of acrobats, aerialists, sword swallowers and lion tamers, mastering a vernacular that reflects a rigid caste system. Ringling Brothers is nicknamed “Big Bertha,” performers are “kinkers” and members of the audience are always “rubes.” When an aged Jacob observes a contemporary circus, he sees children carrying blinking toys: “Bet their parents paid an arm and a leg for them, too. Some things never change. Rubes are still rubes, and you can still tell the performers from the workers.”
The troupe crisscrosses the country cannibalizing acts that have gone bankrupt in the Depression-era economy. After Uncle Al, the autocratic ringmaster, purchases Rosie, an elephant with an unquenchable thirst for lemonade and the inability to follow the simplest command, Benzini Brothers looks doomed. How Jacob coaxes Rosie to perform — thereby saving the circus — lies at the heart of the novel.
Gruen, whose first novel was “Riding Lessons,” turns horses and other creatures into sympathetic characters. According to an author’s note, she studied elephant body language and behavior with a former handler at the Kansas City Zoo. The research pays off. August’s mistreatment of Marlena pales beside the visceral wallop of his nonchalant cruelty toward Rosie: “I look up just as he flicks the cigarette. It arcs through the air and lands in Rosie’s open mouth, sizzling as it hits her tongue. She roars, panicked, throwing her head and fishing inside her mouth with her trunk. August marches off. I turn back to Rosie. She stares at me, a look of unspeakable sadness on her face. Her amber eyes are filled with tears.”
Second-rate and seedy, Benzini Brothers suffers a collective inferiority complex (no one is permitted to utter the word “Ringling” in Uncle Al’s presence). When Lovely Lucinda, the 400-pound fat lady, dies suddenly, Uncle Al orchestrates a funeral procession led by 24 black Percherons and an army of mourners competing for the three dollars and bottle of Canadian whiskey promised to whoever puts on the best show. “You’ve never seen such grief — even the dogs are howling.”
Gruen’s circus, with its frankly mercantile morality, symbolizes the warped vigor of capitalism. No matter how miserable or oppressed, the performers love the manufacturing of illusion, sewing a new sequined headdress for Rosie or feeding the llamas as men die of starvation in a devastated America. August’s paranoid schizophrenia feels emblematic — an indictment of a lifetime spent feigning emotions to make a buck.
At its finest, “Water for Elephants” resembles stealth hits like “The Giant’s House,” by Elizabeth McCracken, or “The Lovely Bones,” by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism. But Gruen’s prose is merely serviceable, and she hurtles through cataclysmic events, overstuffing her whiplash narrative with drama (there’s an animal stampede, two murders and countless fights). She also asserts a grand passion between Jacob and Marlena that’s never convincingly demonstrated.
Black-and-white photographs of real American circus scenes from the first half of the century are interspersed throughout the novel, and they brilliantly evoke the dignified power contained in the quieter moments of this unusual brotherhood. The grainy photos capture the unexpected daintiness of an elephant disembarking from a train, the symmetry of a marching band, a gaggle of plumed showgirls stepping gingerly across a patchy lawn and the haunting solitude of an impeccably dressed cook.
Circuses showcase human beings at their silliest and most sublime, and many unlikely literary figures have been drawn to their glitzy pageantry, soaring pretensions and metaphorical potential (Marianne Moore leaps to mind). Unsurprisingly, writers seem liberated by imagining a spectacle where no comparison ever seems inflated, no development impossible. For better and for worse, Gruen has fallen under the spell. With a showman’s expert timing, she saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale.
Jacob Jankowski says: “I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.” At the beginning of Water for Elephants, he is living out his days in a nursing home, hating every second of it. His life wasn’t always like this, however, because Jacob ran away and joined the circus when he was twenty-one. It wasn’t a romantic, carefree decision, to be sure. His parents were killed in an auto accident one week before he was to sit for his veterinary medicine exams at Cornell. He buried his parents, learned that they left him nothing because they had mortgaged everything to pay his tuition, returned to school, went to the exams, and didn’t write a single word. He walked out without completing the test and wound up on a circus train. The circus he joins, in Depression-era America, is second-rate at best. With Ringling Brothers as the standard, Benzini Brothers is far down the scale and pale by comparison.
Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob’s life with this circus.
Sara Gruen spares no detail in chronicling the squalid, filthy, brutish circumstances in which he finds himself. The animals are mangy, underfed or fed rotten food, and abused. Jacob, once it becomes known that he has veterinary skills, is put in charge of the “menagerie” and all its ills. Uncle Al, the circus impresario, is a self-serving, venal creep who slaps people around because he can. August, the animal trainer, is a certified paranoid schizophrenic whose occasional flights into madness and brutality often have Jacob as their object. Jacob is the only person in the book who has a handle on a moral compass and as his reward he spends most of the novel beaten, broken, concussed, bleeding, swollen and hungover. He is the self-appointed Protector of the Downtrodden, and… he falls in love with Marlena, crazy August’s wife. Not his best idea.
The most interesting aspect of the book is all the circus lore that Gruen has so carefully researched. She has all the right vocabulary: grifters, roustabouts, workers, cooch tent, rubes, First of May, what the band plays when there’s trouble, Jamaican ginger paralysis, life on a circus train, set-up and take-down, being run out of town by the “revenooers” or the cops, and losing all your hooch. There is one glorious passage about Marlena and Rosie, the bull elephant, that truly evokes the magic a circus can create. It is easy to see Marlena’s and Rosie’s pink sequins under the Big Top and to imagine their perfect choreography as they perform unbelievable stunts. The crowd loves it–and so will the reader. The ending is absolutely ludicrous and really quite lovely. –Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
With its spotlight on elephants, Gruen’s romantic page-turner hinges on the human-animal bonds that drove her debut and its sequel (Riding Lessons and Flying Changes)—but without the mass appeal that horses hold. The novel, told in flashback by nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski, recounts the wild and wonderful period he spent with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus he joined during the Great Depression. When 23-year-old Jankowski learns that his parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving him penniless, he drops out of Cornell veterinary school and parlays his expertise with animals into a job with the circus, where he cares for a menagerie of exotic creatures[…] He also falls in love with Marlena, one of the show’s star performers—a romance complicated by Marlena’s husband, the unbalanced, sadistic circus boss who beats both his wife and the animals Jankowski cares for. Despite her often clichéd prose and the predictability of the story’s ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book. (May 26)
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About the Author
I am a transplanted Canadian (now also an American citizen) who moved to the States in 1999 for a technical writing job. Two years later I got laid off. Instead of looking for another job, I decided to take a gamble on writing fiction.
I live with my husband, three children, two dogs, four cats, two horses, and a goat in North Carolina.