Water for Elephants was a book club selection which I was reluctant to read, mainly due to the hype surrounding it. I must admit, however, that I was totally wrong. It was thrilling to read. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.
Water for Elephants follows the story of Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student about to graduate from Cornell in 1931. Following a family tragedy, he leaves Cornell without writing his final exams. He jumps on a train in the dark, not knowing it a circus train. It carries the “Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.” There are no more Benzini Brothers, and the circus is managed by a greedy, manipulative character named Uncle Al, who is also the Ringmaster. He has the assistance of various thugs, as well as a mentally ill animal trainer named August. Al’s motivation is for the Benzini Brothers Circus to be as well-known and profitable as Ringling Brothers, which of course will never happen.
The story is told by Jacob, now a man of 90 or 93 (he’s not quite sure what year it is). He is a resident of a nursing home. His reminisces of the summer of 1931 begin as a circus sets up within view of the nursing home.
Sara Gruen has certainly done a tremendous amount of research for this book. There are many, many details about circus life as well as about life in the United States during the days of The Depression and Prohibition. With her detailed descriptions of events, people, and animals, Gruen brings the to life the world of the Benzini Brothers Circus. You can almost smell, hear and see all the action.
If I were a reviewer who gave out stars, this book would get 5!
Published in hardcover – Algonquin Books 2006
Softcover edition-Algonquin Books 2007