Water for Elephants Prologue Summary
by Sara Gruen

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Prologue Summary

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.