Water for Elephants is proof that author Sara Gruen understands storytelling techniques. Through her careful research of a fascinating topic—circuses of the 1920s and 1930s—Gruen not only draws readers in, she captures them.
Through the eyes of two versions of Jacob Jankowski—one in his nineties and another in his twenties—readers witness what it was like to fall in love, both with circus animals and with a strong woman. When he is a couple days short of gaining his degree in veterinary science from Cornell University, Jacob learns that his mother and father have been killed in an automobile accident. With this stroke of bad luck, Jacob has his planned future suddenly snatched away. As he stumbles through the next weeks in a daze, numbed not only by the cold winter but also by no longer having any family or home, he sees a train chug by in the night. On a sudden impulse, Jacob jumps aboard. The train is moving toward some unknown destination, and Jacob needs a change. What he is soon to discover is that he has climbed aboard a circus train. But this is no Ringling Brothers or Barnum and Bailey. This is the “Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth,” a misnomer if ever there was one.
The circus world that Jacob has just entered is filled with beguiling characters, not all of them attractive in the same way. First, there is Alan J. Bunkel, referred to as Uncle Al, the owner of the circus. Uncle Al makes no bones about it; his main focus in life is money and power. He wants his rag-tag circus to be as spectacular as the Ringling Brothers, but he is going at it in all the wrong ways. Uncle Al surrounds himself with thugs who will do anything he asks, including murder. And then there is August, the animal trainer, who becomes Jacob’s immediate boss. August has a split personality. On one hand, August takes Jacob under his wing, like a father, because he appreciates Jacob’s veterinary skills. On the other hand, August is a monster. He beats his animals and later beats his wife, Marlena, a circus performer, with whom Jacob falls in love.
These are the main characters, except for Rosie. Rosie is the one elephant in the circus, a wise old beast that only understands Polish. She is smart enough to pull up the stake that holds her in place, stick her trunk into the big container of lemonade when no one is looking, then return with her stake and pound it back into the ground. But she is not smart enough to avoid August, who beats her mercilessly, though she does, in the end, gain her revenge.
At the heart of the novel is a love story: that of a young man and a young, ill-married woman, as well as that of the two young people and the animals that surround them. In the course of telling Jacob and Marlena’s story, Gruen also exposes the relationships between the circus people, the performers and the workers, who are tied together by their need to survive during the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Most of them put up with Uncle Al’s cruelties because they have nowhere else to go. They sleep in boxcars while the train transports them across the States. They enjoy some good meals under the circus tent, but they seldom receive their promised wages; and they all know that if they come up lame or ill, they are likely to be “red-lighted”—thrown off the train in the middle of the night and left for dead.
There are many times when Jacob’s life is threatened, but readers know he survives because it is the ninety-year-old Jacob who is telling the story. Jacob in his old age provides comic relief as he grumpily moves through his nursing home, wishing he could once again taste fresh fruit or a hamburger as well as a bit of his old circus life.