A Journalist's Archive

Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Sara Gruen recently received a $5 million dollar advance for her next two novels. Read "Water for Elephants," and you will understand why a publisher wants to ensure their company has a lock on the profits her artistic skills generate.

          Normally a novel about circus performers wouldn't be my first choice in books. But as I was standing in the checkout line of a bookstore, I picked up a copy of "Water for Elephants" and began scanning the novel.  Gruen's prose leaped off the pages and grabbed me; I was hooked.  I spent the next few days riding the rails with a third rate circus and experiencing life through the eyes of Jacob Jankowski. 

          But "Water for Elephants" is more than a tale about a 1930's circus.  It's also a love story forged by the bond two people formed while protecting circus animals from a cruel and sadistic boss.  It's an account of how "freaks" are perceived and treated by society.  And it's an accurate portrayal of how many Americans may spend their last years.

          Gruen uses the flash-back technique to alternate between Jankowski's colorful youth and his present day experiences as a 90 year-old living in a nursing home.  A circus is coming to town and the nursing home residents begin reminiscing about circuses they've seen in their youth.  "I used to carry water for elephants," Mr. McGuinty states.  "No you didn't," Jankowski replies.  The ensuing fight sends wheel-chairs flying and Jankowski is banned from eating with the group.

          A younger Jankowski is only a week away from earning a degree in Veterinary Medicine from Cornell University when he receives word his parents were killed in an automobile accident.   Their deaths, combined with the guilt he feels after discovering his parents expended their entire fortune to pay for his education, leaves Jankowski emotionally unable to complete his exams.  With no plan in mind, he walks out of the classroom and hops a train. 

          A hand reaches down and pulls Jankowski aboard.  "Grady appears with a jug and hands it to Camel.  He wipes its neck with his sleeves and passes it to me. 'Here have a belt...' Camel turns towards me, clears his throat, and speaks slowly, savoring each word. You didn't just jump a train, boy. You done jumped the Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth."  Thus, Jankowski begins a seven year hitch as an unlicensed veterinarian who takes care of the circus menagerie.

          There he meets Marlena, a beautiful young woman who performs death defying acts on Liberty Horses.  Unfortunately, she is married to August, a much older man, who struggles with bi-polar personality disorder.  His mood changes from a kind-hearted individual who bestows favors on his friends, to a madman who beats women and animals that don't live up to his expectations.  Rosie, an elephant who only understand Polish, takes the brunt of his abuse.   

          Readers expect, and are not disappointed, when a love affair begins between Marlena and Jankowski.         

          Gruen spent months investigating circus life during the Great Depression.  Her research becomes evident in her description of a hobo camp, and in her account of the miserable living conditions endured by both performers and animals, as they traipsed from one small town to another in search of a few bucks.                 

           Moreover, Gruen portrays everyone, freaks, scammers, and even Jankowski, as real life humans.  No one is perfect, no one without some virtue.

          Perhaps the only point in the novel where Gruen departs from human nature was in the last chapter.  Life isn't that kind.  But you will have to read "Water for Elephants, " a fascinating action-packed story, to see if you agree with me.   

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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