Water for Elephant by Sara Gruen provides a glimpse into circus life in the post-depression era in America. The story is recalled from the perspective of an old man living in an Old-Age home, remembering his introduction and years as a vet at the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Capturing history in the most captivating manner and giving a snapshot into the promiscuous and colorful lives of performers, as well as workers, at the circus.
The protagonist of the book, Jacob, is a young vet who jumps a random train due to a crisis in his life, only to end up on a whirlwind and magical ride to determine the rest of his life. His status as a vet is immediately recognized by the big man running the circus. Jacob’s fate is slowly revealed as he falls in love with one of the leading performers of the show, Marlena – who happens to be the wife of the head animal trainer August. The role of August signifies the reality and brutality of being on a circus as his character never fails to shock the reader, from battering animals on the show as well as his drunken nights capturing his ruthlessness. In contrast to his character, Marlena is the calm, sophisticated and young wife who cares for animals and essentially wins over Jacob’s heart. Thus the stage is set for disaster as the naive and young vet tries to pursue the beautiful wife of the heartless equestrian director. To add to the drama and reality of their situation, the show experiences one of the worst animal stampedes of all time – only to end the miseries of many, and set free the rest of the characters.
The novel does not scrape or sugar coat any of the realities of being on a circus during depression, projecting the gruesome and often shocking details of reality. From redlighting and animal abuse to the lack of food and promiscuity of the performers, Water for Elephants is a faithful peek into a gaudy era of train circuses. This book is definitely a one of a kind text, capturing the post-depression circus era perfectly.
Here’s to finishing another text on my Reading Wish List. On with the next one!