Book note: Water for Elephants

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen (2006)

Water for Elephants is another good novel I happened to come across in a neighborhood free book exchange.  I got a lot of pleasure out of reading it.

It is about a man named Jacob Jankowski at two stages of his life. The novel alternates between 1931, when he is 23 years old and has run away to join a circus, and the early 2000s, when he is in his 90s and in a nursing home, hoping to be taken to the circus.

Both the circus scenes and the nursing home scenes have a you-are-there quality that shows extensive research and also deep understanding of circus history, the Great Depression and the male psyche.  

But the novel is not just a documentary.  Sara Gruen was highly inventive, although she said the wackier parts were taken from real circus history.  She said Rosie, the lovable but devious elephant, a central character, is based on biographies of real-life elephants. 

Circus life back in the 1930s was a hard life.  The circus companies lived most of their lives on their railroad trains.  They’d stop a location, rapidly set up the big tent, do their acts and move on without delay to the next stop.

Members of the fictional Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth lie and steal, and are cheated and exploited themselves. But they have talent, discipline and esprit de corps.  They stretch the limits of the possible..

The fictional Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth has a rigid class system.  At the top are the Bosses, including the colorful and sociopathic Uncle Al, who is owner and ringmaster, and the charming and vicious August Rosenbluth, equestrian director and superintendent of animals.

Next come the Performers, the clowns, trapeze artists and lion tamers.  They include the beautiful Marlena, an equestrienne who has an act with liberty horses – that is, horses without halters who obey commands given motions of a whip.  Performers work hard for low pay, but they never miss a meal and seldom miss a payday.

Below them are the Workers, who set things up and take them down, feed the animals and clean their cages, and deal with the public.  They, too, have skill and discipline beyond the ordinary.  

The Flying Squadron can raise and take down the Big Top in the same day, travel overnight to the next town, and do it all again the next day.  Patches are skilled at mollifying unhappy customers before they cause trouble.  

They live payday to payday, and pay doesn’t always come.  Gruen wrote that it was customary back then for circuses to hold back part of workers’ pay until the end of the season, so that they wouldn’t quit. Older workers become ticket takers when they are too old to do physical labor.  

If their work is unsatisfactory or they make trouble, they are subject to being thrown off the train when it is in motion – sometimes when the train is passing over a trestle, which makes survival unlikely.  

The lowest class of all are the animals.  They are slave labor.  Many work just as hard as, or harder than, the humans, but only for room and board, which they don’t always get.  When they outlive their usefulness, they become food for other animals.

Sara Gruen has said her novel is partly based on the Biblical story of Jacob.  The parallels aren’t obvious to me.  Jacob does flee his home after his father dies.  He outwits an unscrupulous employer.  In the end, he leaves with his pregnant wife, taking his animals with him.

The author’s depiction of circus life is believable to me, but I don’t have independent knowledge by which to judge its accuracy, and circus life now is undoubtedly very different from what it was during the Great Depression.

There was controversy about including Water for Elephants in school libraries, partly because of a raunchy (and funny) sex scene, but also because of its depictions of cruelty to animals.  

People for Ethical Treatment of Animals were strongly opposed to the 2011 movie version because of mistreatment of Tai, the elephant who played the part of Rosie. 


Excerpt from Water for Elephants.

Interview with Sara Gruen.  Scroll down to read it.


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One Response to “Book note: Water for Elephants”

  1. Nicky D Says:

    I enjoyed this book when I read it years ago. The 2011 film is not bad. If you liked the book, I think you might find the movie worth watching.


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