Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen
reviewed by Dr. Frank Guziec
Department of Chemistry
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen deals with the life and hard times of Jacob Jankowski, both in the present as a 90-something resident of a nursing home, and in the Depression Era as an almost-veterinarian. Jacob, a Cornell vet student about to take his final exams, has his life shattered by the death of his parents in an automobile accident. About to join his father’s veterinary practice, he discovers that the elder Jankowski had treated animals for free in these difficult times, and thus mortgaged the family future to allow his son to receive an Ivy-League education. Unable to focus, Jacob walks out of the examination, out of town and follows the railroad tracks. Like many young men in this desperate era, he jumps a train seeking to start a new life. What a life it turns out to be!
The train he jumps is transporting the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus, where his veterinary experience comes in handy. In the next few chapters a variety of extraordinary characters are described - from Kinko the dwarf, Jacob’s ‘room mate’; Camel, hopelessly addicted to rotgut alcohol; August, the brutal head animal trainer; and the beautiful Marlena, the star animal rider and wife of August. Uncle Al, the violent owner of the circus, is a professional jackal, dismembering other circuses that have fallen on hard times, hiring star performers and animal attractions, and then leaving the remainder of the bankrupt circus employees to fend for themselves.
All is not joy in Benzini Brothers circus life either, where the old and infirm, or simply troublemakers, might be redlighted by Al—thrown off into the void as the circus train passed over a railroad trestle. Things get even more interesting when Al buys Rosie, the English-challenged elephant. A rollicking plot of intrigue, violence and infidelity leads ultimately to the great Benzini Brothers stampede, one of the greatest circus disasters of all time. Amidst the chaos, the thick-skinned heroine seizes the day, and does what no one else appears capable of doing.
Interspersed within this story is that of the current day Jacob, ornery and unpleasant, who feels he deserves more from life than meat loaf, reconstituted mashed potatoes and tapioca pudding. His life becomes unbearable when a rival in the nursing home claims he ‘carried water for elephants’ at the circus, and becomes a celebrity. And the circus is coming to town.
I won’t spoil either ending for you, but the book has won numerous awards and is currently 2nd on the New York Times’ Paperback Trade Fiction Best Sellers list. My wife, Dr. Lynn Guziec, who has very different tastes from me in reading for pleasure, introduced me to the book. Both of us found it fascinating reading. In addition to a beautiful prose style, the book contains period photographs, and is based on circus fact. Even the Polish spelling is correct.
The book is not high literary fiction, but if you want an enjoyable summer read, Water for Elephants is your book. In current tough economic times, it might even be a way of remembering how good we have it now.
“I meant what I said, and I said what I meant …
An elephant’s faithful—one hundred per cent!”
— Theodor Seuss Geisel, Horton Hatches the Egg, 1940.