Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen
This is a book that I greatly enjoyed, probably more for the setting than for the more usual strengths of a novel. To be honest, the characterization was rather thin, the plot rather predictable where it wasn't straining credulity. Still, it was a greatly enjoyable ride and one I would recommend.
The tale is told by Jacob Jankowsky, a ninety-some year old man remembering when he was twenty-three years old working in a small circus for a season during the Depression. We are introduced to Jacob as a young man in the middle of a crisis resulting in a man's death and a stampede of circus animals. Following this prologue, we meet the elderly Jacob in "assisted living" where he has earned himself a reputation as uncooperative because he insists on his own humanity. As he argues, "There's nothing wrong with me, I'm just old." He is old; very old, but he has all his faculties as well as his teeth.
A small circus has come to town and set up within sight of the facility. It is all the residents talk about, and one man makes himself interesting to the group by claiming he used to carry water for the elephants. Jacob calls him a liar: he knows how much water an elephant drinks, and no one could carry that much water. (I looked this up, and an elephant can drink up to 50 gallons of water a day--that's 400 pounds of water. Daily.)
This leads Jacob to remember his days with the Benzini Brothers Circus; a "grift" circus that made money on surruptitious stripper shows and false "freak shows;" that obtains new clothes for its members by stealing them from wash lines in the towns they pass through; where the owner regularly withholds pay to keep the workers in line; where strong men "redlight" anyone they perceive as a troublemaker, throwing them off the train while in motion, sometimes even off of train trestles.
Gruen does a pretty skillful job of getting her narrator into the circus in a fashion that allows him to see all the different castes: because make no mistake, there is a strictly defined hierarchy, and there are not many people in a circus who would get the chance to see the other levels. As the novel starts, Jacob is finishing his degree in veterinary medicine at Cornell, with plans to join his father's practice after graduation. Just before the end of term, he learns that his parents have both been killed in a car accident, have mortgaged their property to the hilt, and since the Depression means no one can afford to pay the vet, there is nothing left. It all goes to the bank. Jacob travels home to identify the bodies of his parents; the shock of it all comes to a head during his final exams, and he simply cannot concentrate enough to write them. He walks away from everything--literally--and after about two days realizes he's lost, hungry, penniless, homeless, and has nowhere to go. He decides to climb a train, with the idea he will get off at the next town and try to find work. It turns out to be a circus train, and the stage is set.
The men in the train car he boards are roustabouts--working men who raise and lower the tents, move the equipment, feed and muck the animals, and are generally the muscle of the circus. Jacob is first put to work cleaning out the animal cars, soon graduates to herding customers into the tents, works security for the cooch tent (the stripper show), and finally gets assigned as the circus vet. Here he meets the Equestrian Director, Augus Rosenbluth (his new boss), and Marlena, the bosses wife and a performer herself.
You could probably write the plot from here. Jacob falls in love with Marlena, her husband turns out to be a violent man, a climactic circus disaster occurs which takes August's life, closes down the Benzini Brothers Circus for good, and allows Jacob and Marlena to marry. This is not the interesting part of the book. What makes this book so enjoyable are the scenes for the circus world--the basic mechanics of moving and feeding so many people and animals, for example. There is the side of the circus the public sees: the spangles, the tricks, the parades--which contrasts sharply with the inside view of the circus: distrust, envy and anger between the performers and the working men; the way the black men have to hide so they are never glimpsed by the public; the hard decisions that are made about sick animals; the sharp business practices to keep the show going.
There is some tenderness as well. The first man to help Jacob get a job later becomes paralyzed from drinking contaminated "jake"--illegal alcohol. Jacob protects the man, giving up his own bedroll out of loyalty and concern. Ultimately, however, Jacob cannot save him (or others) from being redlighted, and his two closest friends die. Jacob earns the affection of several of the animals as well, especially Bobo the chimp, and Rosie the elephant. We see him struggle with his innate need to care for animals, and the business needs of the circus, uncertain where his loyalty must lie. In the end, Jacob champions the animals in his care, and finds how to be true to himself.
I enjoyed the breezy writing, the tour of this exotic world. The ending is a bit fanciful: at 93, Jacob rejoins a circus--which strains credulity, but at the same time ends the book on such an upbeat note that it's hard not to smile.
There are literary elements I've not yet plumbed, as well. According to the author interview in the back of the book, Jacob's story is based on the story of Jacob in the Bible. That might be interesting to pursue. Also, there is an inherent parallel between Jacob in the nursing home, and the animals in the circus: both are helpless, dependent on others to provide what they are used to getting for themselves. This is the stuff just made for book clubs, and mine is scheduled to discuss it November 15th.