Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen, 2006
My Rating: *****

This blog is as much about my experiences reading as the books themselves so it might take me a while to get to the story.

I was sitting in The Last chapter, an indie bookstore/coffee shop in Arcadia, Florida using their free wi-fi to post my comments on Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues. Since I didn't have anything new to read and I like to support indie book sellers, I started looking for something to buy. I found Water for Elephants on the top-selling book table table and was intrigued by the blurb from the Washington Post

You'll get lost in the tatty glamour of Gruen's meticulously researched world ...
I enjoy stories that describe worlds, times, professions, environments etc. with which I have little knowledge and a novel set in a circus during the depression looked to be an interesting read.

Water for Elephants is told by Jacob Jankowski, now in his nineties, and a resident of a nursing home (his children prefer to call it an assisted living facility). Jacob begins his story after a circus sets up near the home. It is easily the most exciting thing to have happened to the residents in a long time.

In 1931, 23 year old Jacob is within days of graduating with a degree in veterinary science from Cornell when a personal tragedy makes him so disoriented and depressed that he walks out of his final exam without writing a word. He hops onto a passing train which is hauling the Flying Squadron, the advance party that will set up the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He narrowly avoids being red lighted (circus term meaning tossed from the moving train) by Blackie, an enforcer for circus security. He is befriended by Camel, a working man (circus term meaning not a performer), who decides to help him get a job.

Gruen uses Jacob's first day and night to introduce us to circus life from the other side. Does anyone remember the 1956 TV show, Circus Boy? This isn't that circus. Besides mucking out the horse cars on the train, Jacob is put to work nudging the rubes into sideshows and acting as security during the choochie show (his first ever look at a live naked woman).

Jacob is written off as a useless college boy until Uncle Al, the ringmaster, discovers that he is a vet in all but degree. Since all the big circuses, like the hated and envied Ringling Brothers, have a vet he immediately hires Jacob. He works for August, the equestrian director and superintendent of animals, who is married to the beautiful equestrienne, Marlena. Guess where this goes. Later, Uncle Al is able to acquire an elephant named Rosie from a defunct show. To Uncle Al, this puts the Benzini Brothers closer to the big time. Rosie becomes a major character in the story. As you read Water for Elephants you will understand the relevance of the epigraph quoting Horton Hatches the Egg.

Gruen skillfully blends her research into the story making it both informative about a time and way of life few of us know anything about as well as highly entertaining. She works in the desperation of the depression and glimpses of the life of hobos. Her descriptions of people, places, and events are vivid. I could almost smell the stock cars and midway and feel the layers of grime on Jacob that first day with the circus.

Both the circus story and the nursing home story come to satisfying conclusions. My thought as I read the last line was "Way to go Jacob!

There is one aspect of the book that I don't understand. One of the book-group discussion questions states that "Sara Gruen has said that the "backbone" of her novel "parallels the biblical story of Jacob" in the book of Genesis. I don't see the parallels. I read the story of Jacob after I finished the book and Gruen's Jacob doesn't have much in common with the biblical Jacob other than he lies down and rest his head on stones the first night of his journey, the names of several of his children, and that he works for the circus for seven years.

I read this book sitting in a state veterans home in Florida and Gruen's descriptions of the residents, their daily routines, entertainments, their meals, and the relationship between the residents and the staff held a special poignancy for me. When you read this book I want you to know that nurses like Rosemary do exist.