Friday, April 16, 2010

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants
by: Sara Gruen

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie.

It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival. (from


This was a great book. Told by the main character Jacob Jankowski, the story leaps back and forth between the year his parents died and he joined the circus and his current position in a nursing home. As Jacob watches the circus come to town through the nursing home window he relives the adventures he had as a vetrenarian with the Benzini Brothers Circus.

I particularly liked the way you really see how life can change, both in an instant and in the long march of time as you get older. In his memory, we see Jacob as a kid who is kind of lost with now where to go, he's lost everything- his parents, his home and even his degree and career. In one life changing decision he hops a train and finds himself in a whole new world, one that welcomes him without alot of questions (especially once they know he is a trained vet). However, the life in the circus is not without it's own dangers as Jacob quickly finds out. During the time with the circus Jacob see's animals and people abused and makes some (deadly) enemies, but he also makes friends and meets Marlena, who would become his wife. Although this story is primarily about these two moments in time, the year he joins the circus and the day the circus visits his nursing home, we do get glimpses into what his life with Marlena was after he left the circus.

In the present, Jacob is an old man (90 or 93, he's not sure) and living in a nursing home, watching the world he once inhabited come to life just outside his window and outside his reach. When his family forgets to come visit him, therby robbing him of a chance to see the circus, Jacob takes matters into his own hands and makes the long, hard walk to the tents himself. Once there, he finds a kindred spirit in a an who revels in hearing all about Jacob's time in the circus and in this new found friendship, he also finds a way to rejoin the life he once had and the chance to go "home" with the circus.

This is a bittersweet story. It holds nothing back and you really see the darker side of the greatest show on earth, as well as the magic it can hold. I really enjoyed the story and I'm looking forward to reading more of Gruen's books.

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