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Thursday, March 12, 2015


Water for Elephants is a must read if you're looking for a colorful mixture of love and murder against the backdrop of a Depression-era circus (and who isn’t?). This is definitely not the circus your folks took you to when you were little. The first chapter is rife with hints of love, scenes of disaster, and a gruesome description of murder. With her phenomenal opening, author Sara Gruen has the reader hooked!

Told in flashback by Jacob close to the end of a lifetime, he takes us back with him to the Depression and a long-vanished world when circuses moved by train from town to town, each circus aspiring to be the next Ringling Brothers. With jobs scarce and starvation a real possibility, those who worked for the circus did just as they were told, and the conditions were mean and difficult. Gruen's description of the circus life, the kinds of acts, and the treatment of animals and people create an atmosphere of grunge and fear. Living conditions are atrocious on the train; horses are packed in so none can lie down. People are treated no better. There is a hierarchy among the circus folk—performers do not mix with the hands; the cook tent is handled differently for each level of worker, and everyone knows his place. Life is tough, and each member must earn his keep. It is not unusual for people no longer needed nor useful to be tossed from the moving train in the middle of the night. Gruen populates her book with the artists, performers, trainers, animals, and sideshow performers for which the circus is famous, but they do not become stereotypes; they're developed and interesting people who struggle to do their jobs and present the world with the illusions we wish to see.

Unfortunate circumstances initially bring Jacob to the circus, a world totally removed from the one he left behind as a Cornell veterinary medicine student. As he is introduced to the circus' unusual culture, so are we. A strange old man, Camel, an alcoholic in the age of prohibition, takes Jacob under his wing and makes sure he gets a job and a place to stay. At the circus Jacob meets August and his wife Marlena, a star performer on the Liberty horses, those regal white stallions with the beautifull girl standing and riding and guiding them around the ring. The couple’s and Jacob’s strange friendship evolves in and around the circus and grows more complex as time passes. Many of the characters have developed personal psychological defensive walls and come from strange and eerie backgrounds. Little by little Sara Gruen reveals them and forces her reader to react emotionally. She writes tightly, and no detail is unimportant.

In those crushing economic times, circuses fold, and the remaining ones rush to hire performers or secure animals that might add to their allure. At one such moment, the circus acquires Rosie, an elephant who does not seem to live up to her reputation as a wonderful performer. Although he hates Rosie, under August's direction she becomes the center of attention when ridden by Marlena. August is not happy with his new assignment as Rosie’s trainer. Rosie frustrates him and he retaliates cruelly. Neither Marlena nor Jacob can tolerate this abuse, and their concern for Rosie creates interesting consequences. It is Jacob who unlocks the secret to Rosie.

Water for Elephants is a wonderful book of layered stories. I got lost in each layer and enjoyed the richness and surprises. I cannot describe this novel as a “pretty” book. If you enjoy Americana and love an escapist adventure, this is certainly the book for your next vacation.

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