Clearly you don’t need reality TV to take you behind the scenes to the dark side of show business. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a colorful and enchanting historical novel about a circus struggling to keep afloat during the Depression era, and the harsh truths behind the sequins and spectacle of the alleged “Greatest Show on Earth!”
The story is narrated by Jacob Jankowski, a ninety-some-year-old-man. Bitter at being abandoned by his family and reduced to a mere number at a nursing home, he has nothing but his memories to keep him content. While he is unable to recall details of his day-to-day life, Jacob vividly recalls his time spent as a veterinarian for the Benzini Brothers traveling circus during the 1930s.
Jacob is a twenty-three-year-old veterinary student when a family tragedy prompts him to leave the university and hop on a circus train on a whim, thereby restarting his life from the ground up. He befriends the ringmaster, Uncle Al, and the head animal trainer, August, only to discover firsthand the violent natures of these cutthroat showmen and the code of survival among the performers and working men, all while falling in love with August’s wife, the star performer Marlena.
Alternately assertive and vulnerable, compassionate and pragmatic, Marlena is more than a generic love interest. She appears to fulfill traditional notions of femininity, as she gives the appearance of being delicate and demure, and she steers clear of the business end of circus life and dotes on the horses she trains and performs with. She also speaks out against the unfair treatment of low-ranking workers, and is openly disgruntled with her insufferable husband. Gender politics come into play in the power struggle between her and August, and I found her character to be a fascinating juxtaposition of the feminine ideal and the qualities considered traditionally masculine.
The bond between human and animal is poignantly portrayed in Jacob’s rapport with Rosie the elephant and Marlena’s connection with her beloved horses. Rosie, as a character, shines with her humanlike personality and her gentle and humorous nature, and Jacob and Marlena bond over their shared affection for the majestic animal. There is also Walter, a midget performer with a gruff exterior and a soft spot for his terrier, Queenie. To an extent, the humans of Water for Elephants are characterized in the way they relate to their animals, which is telling of their true natures.
In addition to the violations of the rights of workers, the suffering of circus animals is described in heartbreaking detail, from Rex the toothless lion to the beating of the lovely Rosie. Gruen portrays the respective suffering of humans and animals as the equalizer between them, the thing that makes their differences irrelevant and the bonds between them all the more profound.
At times hard to read but nonetheless enjoyable, Water for Elephants appeals to a wide range of readers: romantics, animal lovers and fans of historical novels, to name a few. Overall it’s a worthwhile read, and the happy ending compensates for its tragic elements.