The theme of love is hard to miss, despite all the circus cruelties. Young Jacob falls instantly in love with Marlena, the trick horse rider. Later Marlena works with Rosie, the elephant, with whom both Jacob and Marlena fall in love. It is their love of animals that pulls the twenty-year-olds together. Marlena and Jacob’s love is thwarted by the fact that Marlena is already married to August. They try to do what is expected of them. But they have so much in common—their age, their love of animals, their joy of life—that it is hard for them not to be friends. Their friendship grows stronger when August’s abuse of the animals, and later his abuse of Marlena and Jacob, unites them.
The theme of love of life also plays out with ninety-year-old Jacob, as he bemoans the drooling, non-responsive seniors who cannot carry on a decent conversation and the medical attendants who treat him as if he were an idiot. Jacob does not want to lie in bed and wait for death. When a circus parks itself across the street from the home, Jacob’s memories are stirred. He wants to go out into the world, away from the nursing home that is smothering him. The man Jacob encounters when he slips over to the circus demonstrates another kind of love. He shares his love of the circus with Jacob.
Cold-heartedness runs through this story, too. First there is the cold-hearted business of the Great Depression and the failure of banks that throws Jacob out onto the streets when the family home is taken away. Then there is Uncle Al, who cares as little for those who work for him as he does for cockroaches in his breakfast cereal. He feeds his lame horses to the lions and in the middle of the night throws his ailing workers off the train, hoping they die so they cannot report him to the authorities. But August, the animal trainer, is the most cold-hearted of all. He mercilessly beats his animals when he is frustrated with their performance or just frustrated with his life.