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Originally written as part of the month-long NaNoWriMo challenge, Water for Elephants became Sara Gruen's bestselling novel and the basis for the 2011 film of the same name.
In writing the novel, Gruen did extensive research into circus life and the history of circuses during the Great Depression. Many of the anecdotes she found were incorporated into the novel. In an interview, Gruen states:
I knew shamefully little about the Great Depression when I began researching, and what I learned was heartbreaking. It was a terrible, catastrophic time.
(Interview with Sara Gruen, curledup.com)
Today, the Great Depression is so far in the past that many people can't conceive of its enormity. The brutal nature of the time is evident in the novel, where circus performers can be "red-lighted," or thrown off a moving train, if they are not performing up to standards. The hardships of the time appear all over the book, from the alcoholic extracts imbibed by the poor instead of liquor to the pornographic comics sold by traveling merchants, as well as the callous nature of many people towards animals.
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