One of the best books I've read in a very long time is Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen. It is a romantic historical fiction, set in the days of the Great Depression. For those of you who like historical fiction, it may come as a surprise to know that before she started her research into circuses, Ms. Gruen had never been to one, large or small. She did a year's research, even tracking down circus performers for interviews, before she began this book.
This is the story of Jacob Jankowski, who happens to be ninety. Or ninety- three, depending upon whom you believe. Jacob is living out his days in a nursing home, which he hates with a passion. All he has left of his life are his memories of the traveling circus, The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, and thus the meat of the story is told in flashbacks.
The story opens with twenty-one year old Jacob sitting in the food tent as the show for the evening is over, and the roustabouts are getting ready to tear everything down. Suddenly, there is a clash of cymbals, a cacophony of brass, reed, and percussion instruments, and then the loud strains of "Stars and Stripes Forevcr" blast forward. This is the Disaster March...the animals have escaped their cages, stalls, and handlers and are racing pellmell through the midway. Jacob dashes out of the tent, searching for the young woman he has fallen in love with. But he is stopped in his tracks, as he witnesses the murder of the very man he has grown to not only fear, but to hate.
Jacob Jankowski is ready to sit for his final exams in the Veterinary School of Medicine at Cornell University, when he is called out of the room by the head of the school. He learns that his parents have been killed in a horrible accident. When he returns home, he finds that there is nothing left for him, as his parents had mortgaged their house and his father's Vet Clinic in order to pay for his university education. He returns to Cornell, but doesn't write a word on his exams. He walks out, and soon finds himself running along side a train filled with men he believes to be hobos. He swings himself up, and that is the beginning of the next seven years of his life, working with the animals in the Benzini Brothers Circus.
There is Uncle Al, the gross, often cruel circus impressario who thinks of no one but himself, and who will dispatch in the most horrendous way, anyone who disagrees with him or refuses to do what he tells them to. There is Marlena, the beautiful, young star who trains and loves the horses she rides to perfection in her act...and with whom Jacob falls in love. This becomes disasterous, as Marlena is married to August, the animal trainer who is also deranged, and whose flights into madness can focus on the animals, Marlena, or Jacob. Then there is Rosie, the bull elephant who seems to be untrainable, thereby incuring August's wrath many times, until Jacob accidentally stumbles upon a way to get through to her, and get her to obey commands. Slyly, through the book, Rosie comes to love Jacob and Marlena, but quickly learns to hate August...she is merely waiting her turn. Which does come.
The thrust of the story is the love between Marlena and Jacob, Marlena's love of her horses and Rosie, and the shaky relationship Jacob has with the other people in the circus. The ending may surprise you.
Ms. Gruen did her research well. Her descriptions of the filth and squalor of the living quarters the roustabouts and circus people live in; her depictions of the mistreated animals who are fed rotten food and mangy hay; her way of humanizing the "freaks" of the show...all bring to life in the reader's mind, the wonderful, terrible, beautiful, horrifying life of a traveling circus in the 1930s.
One of the most interesting and compelling features of this book is the author's total grasp of the circus vocabulary: the roustabouts, the workers, the impressario, the grifters, rubes, Jamacian ginger paralysis, cooch tent, the Disaster March when something bad occurs, the set-up and take-down of the circus tents, the Midway games, how the "revenoors" ( cops) run the circus out of town, and, perhaps most terrifying of all, the "Red lighting" of those who don't conform to life in a less-than-second-rate traveling circus.
Water for Elephants has a surprising twist, and perhaps a less than totally believable ending, but you will be IN the time and place of this story. You will smell the smells, and breathe in the sometimes sweet and more often fetid air of the Big Top and the Midway, you will see the pathetic animals come to life, and you will hear the band playing the Opening March as animals and performers rise to the occasion as they parade around the Center Ring. You will believe the pagentry, you will laugh and you will cry as the story unfolds, and at the end, you will know exactly who the people were that populated the traveling circuses in small-town America during the Great Depression.
Read the book before you see the movie. I've read the reviews of the movie, and if they can be believed, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattison do not come close to the intensity and the depth of emotion displayed in the book between Jacob and Marlena.
Until next time,
That's a wrap.