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.
Jacob, Grady, and the fry cook sit in the grease joint; Grady and Jacob are eating burgers while the main circus shows are performed under the tents and the big top. Jacob knows the circus show routine by heart: at that moment, the performers in the Grand Spectacle would be exiting, and Lottie the aerialist would be starting her performance in the center ring. In the noise and bustle, Jacob cannot hear Grady talking to him and has to lean in to hear Grady say that it seems that Jacob now has a lot to lose. Then the men hear applause from the big top, and the band changes tune. Jacob knows this is the cue for the elephant act, and he thinks of Marlena either already sitting on Rosie the elephant or preparing to mount. Jacob wants to go see her act, but Grady tells him to eat while he can. Suddenly much noise comes from the area of the menagerie, the tent in which the animals are kept, and the band plays off key. Confused, Jacob asks Grady what it all means. Grady tells him this is the “Disaster March,” the tune the band is instructed to play if and when a catastrophe occurs: the animals have been let loose.
The tents become utter chaos as workmen and performers flee the scene. Grady screams to Jacob to run, but he cannot leave Marlena behind and instead runs toward the madness of the menagerie. When he gets there, he sees that the concession stand has been flattened, and animals of all types are loose on top. Chimps swing from ropes to stay away from the dangerous cats, a zebra barely misses the swipe of a hungry lion, and a yak gallops through with a hyena clinging to its back. A lithe, black panther slips through the tunnel between the tents; moments later, the people who are there to watch the show scream and run from the big top. Jacob wonders how hard it can really be to find a girl and an elephant.
Jacob finally finds Marlena—she is standing on the other side of the tent. A man is standing in front of her, flapping his arms and swinging his cane. His hat is on the ground next to him. “She” picks up an iron stake, and “she” looks at the back of the man’s head. Jacob knows what is coming next, but he cannot stop her. “She” splits the man’s head open, and he falls into the straw. Jacob cannot move.
This image has haunted Jacob for all his days. He does not talk much to anyone about his time spent in the circus. He has promised to keep a secret. For seventy years, he has never told anyone.
Chapter 1 Summary
Jacob Jankowski is now ninety or ninety-three—he cannot really remember. He forgets things sometimes. Jacob is a resident at a senior citizens’ housing facility, and he is one of few men in residence; most of the residents are old ladies. But they are much younger than Jacob is, and they are in better physical condition; in his old age, Jacob is finding it more and more difficult to get around. He uses a walker for support because his feet drag beneath him as he shuffles about. But this does not bother the ladies, who chase after Jacob and ask him if he will be going to see the circus that has just arrived in town. Jacob cannot believe the circus is so near, and his heart thumps to hear of it.
The nurses help the residents to the dinner table, and Jacob sarcastically asks what is on the menu for the evening. He hates the bland taste and soft texture of the food at the center, and he longs for food into which he can sink his teeth. Everyone at the table is chattering about the circus. The nurses have placed a newcomer, Joseph McGuinty, across the table from Jacob. He does not know what he is supposed to talk to McGuinty about—Jacob was a veterinarian and McGuinty was a lawyer. So Jacob decides to ignore McGuinty while the ladies continue to talk about their childhood memories of the circus. Then McGuinty pipes in and says that he used to work for the circus by carrying water for the elephants. This statement sends Jacob into a fury, and he screams at McGuinty and calls him a liar. McGuinty takes offense, but Jacob cannot be controlled. He says, “Do you have any idea how much an elephant drinks?” Rosemary, one of the nurses, quickly wheels Jacob out of the room against his protests; she takes him back to his bedroom.
Rosemary promises to come to check on him later, and she actually keeps her word. She brings Jacob a bowl of real fruit, and Jacob savors every bite. While he eats, Jacob looks at his own frail hand, and he thinks “age is a terrible thief.” He is lonely and misses his wife, who died from cancer. After his wife died, Jacob felt like he was split down the middle. Even still, he is happy that he is the survivor—he does not think his wife could have handled being left alone for the rest of her days. Jacob is tormented by the ghosts of his past.
Chapter 2 Summary
Jacob flashes back to his life at twenty-three years of age. He is in a lecture hall at Cornell University and is sitting next to Catherine Hale. He has serious romantic feelings for Catherine, but she will not let him advance with her. Jacob laments the fact that he will graduate from veterinary school and join his father’s practice in Norwich still a virgin. Suddenly Dean Wilkins arrives in the lecture hall and has a private conversation with Professor McGovern. The dean then pulls Jacob out of the classroom and tells him that his parents have been involved in an automobile accident. Jacob wants the dean to give him the truth, and the dean tells him that both his parents died on impact.
Jacob returns home to identify the bodies. He is shocked by the wounds and bruises on his parents’ skin. He vomits in the room, and the chaplain asks him if there is anyone he can call. All Jacob’s family lives in Poland; in his grief, Jacob cannot think of any family friends to contact. Jacob goes back to his parents’ house and sees that his father has put up a new sign outside the veterinary practice: “E. Jankowski and Son—Doctors of Veterinary Medicine.” He looks around at all his parents’ belongings and considers the sudden nature of their death. Soon after, the ladies from the church auxiliary come to the house to care for Jacob. He is offered a room with a neighbor.
Two days after Jacob’s parents’ funeral, he is called to see a lawyer about his parents’ estate. Having seen the new sign, Jacob knows that his father was preparing to have him join his business. However, the lawyer informs Jacob that his father had not been taking monetary payment for his services. Times are hard economically, so Dr. Jankowski had been accepting barter payments. As a result, the bank now owns all their property and belongings. Jacob realizes that his parents had to take out a mortgage on their home to pay for his schooling. He does not know...
(The entire section is 544 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Jacob wakes as the train comes to a stop. Camel tells Jacob they must get moving before someone sees Jacob and that he will ask Crazy Joe, who is in charge of the horses, if there is work to be done. Meanwhile, the workmen begin to nail posts around the area to lay the lot. Camel gets in touch with Crazy Joe, and Joe agrees to let Jacob help shovel manure from the railcar. As they work, tents are put up quickly. Soon, a blue and orange flag is hoisted over the cookhouse to indicate lunch. Jacob is amazed at the large spread of food—he has not eaten in two days. After filling his plate, Jacob wants to sit at one of the nicely decorated tables; however, Camel tells him that those tables are not for his kind. They go to a set of...
(The entire section is 487 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
For the next forty-five minutes, Jacob guards Barbara’s door as she privately entertains men. When she is done, she comes outside and waves Jacob away, telling him that she is not giving any “freebies” tonight. Jacob returns to the cooch tent to help stack the chairs. Jacob looks over at the big top, but he does not want to risk getting snatched up for another job while trying to see the show.
He sits on the ground, and Camel comes up to him. They share a bottle of jake, and Camel says that he is getting too old to work for the circus. He has already moved down the ranks and is now just a ticket seller, but even this is too difficult now for Camel. The performers begin to change out of their costumes, and Jacob...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
The story returns to the present, and Jacob reckons that he has fallen asleep. He wipes his tears and tries to pull himself together because the nurse in pink is back to see him. Jacob cannot get a handle on what day it is or what the nurse’s name is. She greets him and tells him he should be happy because he has lived to see another day and because he is going to the circus tomorrow. The nurse then begins her daily routine of checking Jacob. She sticks a thermometer in his ear, and Jacob feels like a piece of meat. He is resentful of this treatment. He tells her he does not want breakfast. As she continues her routine, Jacob catches sight of her nametag—Rosemary. Jacob is proud he can keep up the appearance of lucidity....
(The entire section is 518 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Jacob again flashes back to his time in the circus, and he is on the circus train. The train finally comes to a stop, and Kinko rises. He is barely four feet tall. He pets his dog, Queenie, and asks her if she wants to go outside. Jacob tries to talk to Kinko, but Kinko ignores him and goes outside. When Jacob emerges from the train, he sees that many of the tents have already been erected and a crowd of spectators is already gathering to watch. Other circus workers come out of the train cars, and Jacob notices that the more elite members have better cars near the back of the train—Uncle Al’s train car is just in front of the caboose. Jacob and Kinko have the car nearest the engine. August emerges from the train and calls to...
(The entire section is 560 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
August and Marlena have requested Jacob to go to car number 48; because the cars are not numbered in order, it takes Jacob some time to find the right one. Once there, Jacob realizes that the room is glorious with many amenities. Marlena gets Jacob a beer, and he asks how there happens to be so much alcohol on the train with Prohibition and all. She says that the train goes to Canada at the beginning of the season to load up, and the stash is hidden with the camels when passing through Customs. Marlena apologizes for what August did to Jacob’s arm, and August comes out and shows Jacob that he has arranged for him to have a tuxedo for the evening. The three get changed, and dinner is served. There are many delicacies that Jacob...
(The entire section is 545 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
At the nursing home, Rosemary the nurse wakes Jacob. She says he has been dreaming and muttering something about stars and cats. As she takes off the Velcro wrist restraints, she asks if he tried to run off the previous day. Jacob admits that his plate slid off the table, and Rosemary laughs saying that Jacob is a “live one.” Rosemary opens the blinds, and Jacob gets upset that he is never asked what he wants in his own room. Rosemary drops the blinds and marches out of the room. Then she opens the door just a little and asks if she may come in the room. Jacob is not sure whether she is playing a game with him, but he tells her to come inside. She asks if she can open the blinds to let in the sunshine, and Jacob tells her to do...
(The entire section is 589 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Back on the circus train, Jacob wakes when the train reaches Joliet. Kinko and Queenie jump out of the car, and Jacob soon follows. The scene is quiet; it is unusual that the tents are not being put up and nothing is happening. Instead, the men are staring at the tents of another circus. Uncle Al goes up to two men wearing suits who have just arrived in their roadster. August appears and tells Jacob that they are going into town to have breakfast because there likely will not be any food on site until the next day. August, Jacob, and Marlena go to a diner, but Marlena only orders coffee. She is still angry that August used Silver Star as feed. She storms out.
When Jacob and August return to the site, a few Benzini...
(The entire section is 559 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
August rushes off to argue with Uncle Al about the elephant. Rosie grabs hay from Jacob’s fingers, and Marlena laughs. Rosie smiles. When Jacob turns back, he suddenly ends up waltzing with Marlena. She pulls away, and Jacob wants to kiss her—he does not know what to do. August returns and is angry that Uncle Al has paid so much money for the elephant and her trailer car. He also reveals that Uncle Al has taken on more performers without any room to accommodate them in the performers’ cars on the train.
Jacob returns to the ring stock car and sees that everyone is drinking the night away. Inside, Kinko has a party going, and he is full of drunken hospitality. He offers Jacob a drink and introduces him to the...
(The entire section is 418 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
The circus is on its way to Chicago; during the ride, Kinko teaches Queenie to walk on her hind legs. Jacob wakes from a fitful night of dreams, and then he remembers all that happened the previous day. Kinko sits up on his cot and asks Jacob what his story is. Jacob says that he comes from nowhere. He sulks as he recalls his drunken behavior, but Kinko tells him that he should not be embarrassed by anything. Kinko offers Jacob a book to read, which Jacob appreciates; Kinko then says he can call him Walter like all his friends do.
As the train approaches Chicago, Jacob is bothered by the harsh smells of the city. After the tents are set up, Jacob seeks the comfort of the animals in the menagerie. Jacob knows that he is...
(The entire section is 477 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Jacob flees to the menagerie to care for the animals. Clive shows up among the men working in the menagerie and tells everyone to stay clear of August, who is in a terrible mood because Uncle Al wants August to put Rosie the elephant in the show’s parade. Otis claims that the elephant will refuse to walk in the parade given her stubborn behavior up to this point. Later, August and Uncle Al show up. Jacob watches from a distance and sees them attempt to line Rosie up in the parade. Afterward, Rosie is put into the hippopotamus wagon and taken into town. The parade returns with a large crowd. In the menagerie, Rosie draws the attention of many spectators. She uses her trunk to entertain the crowd, and Jacob realizes that Rosie is...
(The entire section is 480 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
In the nursing home, Jacob is awakened by the sound of a tray of food being dropped by a skinny nurse. He does not like her because she routinely tries to keep him from walking on his own. He is parked in his wheelchair in the hallway outside his room, and he attempts to get up using his walker. The nurse rushes over to him. She offers to wheel him over to the window; Jacob allows her to help. The nurse looks stunned by Jacob’s compliance and comments that she is surprised because he is normally adamant about walking on his own. He says that he wants to look out the window. The nurse reminds him that normally it is just an empty lot and that it is only special lately because the circus is in town. Jacob says he should be able to...
(The entire section is 410 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
It has been nearly a week since Marlena’s accident, and she has not come out of her train car. August also no longer comes to meals, so Jacob eats alone. August does, however, continue his work duties, and he drags Rosie around on display with the bull hook snagged into the back of her front leg. Rosie entertains the crowds that visit the menagerie, but there are no plans for her to perform another act in the big top.
One evening, Earl comes to the ring stock car seeking Jacob’s assistance for Camel. The old man’s hands and feet have gone limp and floppy, and Earl says that Camel needs a doctor. Jacob reminds Earl that a veterinarian is not the same as a doctor, but Earl says that Uncle Al will not get a doctor...
(The entire section is 455 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
Camel now hides behind the trunks on blankets set up by Walter and Jacob. Two days later, Camel’s paralysis worsens and his tremors have gotten so bad he can barely speak. Out of sympathy, Walter brings him a bottle of whiskey to ease his misery. A week passes, yet Marlena remains in her train car. Jacob is worried about her and feels compelled to peek in her window, but his good judgment compels him to do otherwise. As the train moves on to various cities, Walter manages to get Camel to tell him the name of his son and his last known address. At the next stop, Walter gets in touch with Camel’s son, who agrees to claim his father when they reach Providence.
Unexpectedly, the Lovely Lucinda, the circus’s fat lady,...
(The entire section is 633 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
Jacob has been talking out loud without realizing it, and he mistakenly calls Rosemary the nurse “Rosie.” Rosemary reminds him of her proper name, and Jacob is embarrassed because he had not been aware that he was speaking to her. Rosemary says he has been talking to her since they left the lunchroom, but Jacob feels like he has been in the past. He asks if he said anything inappropriate, and Rosemary says he has not. Rosemary tells Jacob he should tell the other residents about the time he spent in the circus, but Jacob still does not want to talk about the circus. Rosemary realizes that Jacob is embarrassed, so she says she is honored to know him and that he is a good man. Jacob is flattered. He then tells Rosemary that he...
(The entire section is 394 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
August is away, likely abusing Rosie. Meanwhile, Jacob and Marlena sit in her dressing tent while she tells him everything about her past. Marlena met August when she was seventeen years old; her parents had been routinely inviting bachelors to the house to woo their daughter. When a middle-aged banker began making repeat visits, Marlena realized that her parents had chosen this man to be her husband. In town, Marlena saw the Benzini Brothers posters, and she began to think that a life in the circus would be a romantic, although terrifying, escape. Two days later, her family went the circus, and Marlena met August while she was standing in front of the horses in the menagerie. August was “charming and relentless,” so Marlena...
(The entire section is 483 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
Marlena descends from Rosie’s head, and August says the pair was absolutely brilliant in the ring. He reminds Marlena that she must also perform with the horses. As he walks away, Marlena puts her hand on Jacob’s elbow before asking him for a favor—but she has not noticed that August has seen her gesture. She asks Jacob to bring Rosie to her dressing tent because she has a surprise for them all. On his way to the tent, Jacob meets up with Grady and Bill, and the men chat about Walter’s brusque character and the stream of money now coming into the circus.
When Jacob gets to Marlena’s tent, he sees a pile of watermelons—Rosie’s favorite food—in the corner. He gives one to Rosie to calm her desire to get at...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
Rosemary leans over Jacob and wakes him from his sleep. She tells him that it is time to get ready, and Jacob is thrilled not only because he remembers where he is and who Rosemary is but because today is the day of the circus. Jacob tells Rosemary that he wants his good shirt and his bow tie, and she thinks his sense of style is quite funny. Rosemary helps Jacob get changed. When he looks down at his body, Jacob sees how skinny he has become. Once Jacob is dressed, Rosemary takes a good look at him and declares that the bow tie was just the right decision. She asks Jacob if he would like to look at himself in the mirror, but Jacob does not like looking at himself, so he refuses. Rosemary tells him that he looks quite handsome. She...
(The entire section is 487 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary
When Jacob wakes up, Marlena is not there. She has gone to see Uncle Al; Earl escorted her. At Car 48, August must leave while Marlena packs her things. August looks as terrible as Jacob does—both men have beaten each other badly. But August will not quietly let Marlena leave the car. He begs and pleads with her to stay, promising that he will never behave violently again. He is on his knees, and he takes a ring out of his pocket and tries to slip it on Marlena’s finger. She simply walks past his show. August reminds Marlena of her vows, but she continues to march across the grass. Marlena gives Jacob her suitcase, and they go into town to find her a room at a hotel. The hotel clerk takes one look at their bruises and does not...
(The entire section is 494 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary
Marlena wakes suddenly and looks at Jacob’s watch; it is noon, and she hurries to get dressed to go back to the circus grounds. Jacob stops her and confesses that he loves her and wants to be with her. She admits that she loves Jacob, but she reminds him that she is still married to August. Jacob tells her they can fix that problem, but Marlena knows this would mean leaving the circus. They agree to make plans to leave in Providence when Jacob is relieved of the burden of caring for Camel. Jacob tells Marlena that Uncle Al wants him to persuade Marlena to go back to August and that he has threatened to redlight Walter and Camel, but Marlena does not believe Uncle Al would redlight anyone. Jacob tells Marlena about men in the past...
(The entire section is 516 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary
Jacob slowly regains consciousness. He feels a cold compress being put on his forehead and hears someone telling him not to move. Jacob does not remember what happened to him, and suddenly he thinks of Marlena and tries to sit up. Walter replaces the compress on Jacob’s head and tells him to rest and keep quiet. Jacob wants to go find Marlena, but Walter tells him there is nothing he can do for her now. Walter admits that if Camel were not there and if Jacob did not have a concussion, he would have never gotten back on the train and would have left the circus for good. The men agree that for the next three days, they will cope as best they can. Jacob tells Walter that Marlena is pregnant, and Walter tells him that is all the more...
(The entire section is 724 words.)
Chapter 23 Summary
After the stampede, the circus workers catch and retrieve all the animals they can, but the bear and most of the cats are missing. A local restaurant calls to say that Leo, one of the lions, is under the kitchen sink with the dishwasher. Uncle Al is also missing, and the circus lot is full of police officers investigating the scene. Word has it that Uncle Al is keeping out of sight to avoid being fined. On the second day following the stampede, many more animals are returned to the menagerie. The local sheriff arrives, claiming that the circus is breaking vagrancy laws. He orders that they move and wants to know who is in charge, but Uncle Al is still missing. The next day, the Nesci Brothers circus train arrives, and the manager...
(The entire section is 539 words.)
Chapter 24 Summary
Jacob sits in the lobby of his retirement home. He cannot believe his son Simon forgot it was his day to come visit, particularly because it is the day for the circus, and Simon spent the first seven years of his life on the Ringling Brothers circus. But Jacob recognizes that Simon himself is around seventy years old and must be prone to forgetting. Jacob thinks about the fact that he can remember so many things, like the day of Simon’s birth and how he almost fainted with joy when Marlena showed him Simon’s red hair, so much like his own.
The clock reads past three, and Jacob knows that the Spec is surely over. Suddenly he feels trapped in the lobby. Jacob does not think that he should continue to live this way, so...
(The entire section is 414 words.)
Chapter 25 Summary
After the show, Jacob accompanies Charlie to his trailer and sips an impressive single malt scotch. He tells Charlie everything about his time with the Benzini Brothers circus, including the details of how Rosie killed August. Jacob feels such relief—for years, he never told anyone the secret about what Rosie did. Charlie nods sympathetically. Jacob never knew if Marlena was aware of what Rosie had done, but he never told her, fearing that the knowledge might make her change the way she felt about Rosie.
Then Jacob tells Charlie about the years he and Marlena spent with the Ringling Brothers circus. They left after the birth of their third child. Marlena had had enough of being on the road, and Rosie was getting too...
(The entire section is 481 words.)