With the setting of the Great Depression, Gruen writes a narrative that portrays the desperate lives of circus performers and workers who try to survive as best they can. Because of the economic hardships of the time, they tolerate the cruelties of Alan J. Bunkel, known as Uncle Al, because they have no other place to go for work outside the circus.
Knowing the workers' desperate situation, Uncle Al exerts his cruelty with impunity. In Chapter 14, for example, after having purchased the elephant Rosie and her trailer car, Uncle Al is short of payroll money and several men are not paid, including Jacob. But, no one complains from fear of being "red-lighted," or thrown from the moving train. Nevertheless, Jacob later learns at dinner that night that several men have, indeed, been red-lighted, simply discarded for economic reasons.
Then, in Chapter 22, after the love triangle of Jacob, Marlena, and August has developed and August has abused Marlena, tension is high among all the circus workers. The dwarf, Walter has befriended Camel, who has developed paralysis from having drunk bad bootlegged liquor. Walter and Jacob try to hide Camel from Blackie and the other thugs, but one night while Jacob goes to August's room with Walter's knife in order to kill him, he returns after having changed his mind only to find Walter and Camel gone. They have been thrown from the train as it crossed a trestle. Jacob learns that Camel hit his head on a rock and died instantly, and Walter's legs were broken so badly that the men were forced to leave him then they did find him. The others tell Jacob that the thugs were looking for him, especially.
A heartless, self-serving man, Uncle Al's exploitation of the circus workers illustrates the low value of human life during the time when men were dispossessed by the dire circumstances of the Great Depression.