Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pachyderms & Dwarfs

Two words in a New York Times review by Elizabeth Judd prompted me to buy Sara Gruen’s 2007 novel, Water for Elephants.

‘On our first date, my husband took me to see Todd Browning’s Freaks, a 1932 horror film with a distinctly Diane Arbus feel that takes a voyeuristic delight in dwarfs, fat ladies and other sideshow improbabilities. Sara Gruen’s arresting new novel, Water for Elephants, explores similar subject matter—the PATHETIC GRANDEUR of the Depression-era circus.’

What a marvelous description—pathetic grandeur—and one that immediately triggered my interest. Something about it had resonance with an image I have always had of circuses attended as a boy.

Like many good titles, this book was a longtime coming to my bookshelves. It was first published in 2006 by Algonquin Books, and I can remember seeing it in my Tokyo bookstore around that time. Too bad for me, I passed it by without paying much attention. It wasn’t until a month ago that I stumbled upon Elizabeth Judd’s review of the book, and intrigued by her description, bought myself a copy of the book.

Booksellers are often quick to categorize books, to fit them into a genre that makes order easier. Water for Elephants is one of those multi-faceted books that require inclusion in as many as five categories. It is as much a circus history as it is a love story, and adventure novel, a mystery and a fictional memoir. Ms Gruen’s story proves that she is sensitive to the ingredients that make up a page-turning novel.

The story is told in flashbacks by Jacob Jankowski, with chapters alternating between his circus days as a young man in 1931, and his present ‘sentence’ to a nursing home. These alternating environments provide the writer with a powerful playing field.

Shortly before graduation from Cornell University, 23 year-old Jacob’s parents are killed and he is left penniless and basically alone in a Depression-era America. In his despair he blows off his final exams and jumps a passing train, which just happens to be one carrying the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth—And there begin the adventures of young Jacob Jankowski.

The circus is not much more than a second-rate operation hopscotching from town to town, playing a day or two in one place before hightailing it to the next, often just ahead of the cops. With his education in veterinary science, Jacob is put to work looking after the menagerie of animals, an assortment of mangy, ill-fed unfortunates. Everything about it is squalid, filthy and brutish. Jacob finds himself butt of the impresario’s cruelty, and all too close to a schizophrenic animal trainer. As fate would have it, Jacob falls immediately in love with the man’s beautiful young wife. He soon becomes protector of the weaker employees in this new life of his, where his love and care extend beyond human boundaries to encompass the animals as well. Gruen is not new to writing about animals, and her characterizations of the circus animals, especially Rosie the elephant and Bobo the chimp are lovingly drawn.

The novel is a result of careful and thorough research tingling with the authentic color and personality of circus life at an earlier time. A distinct language of the time and place practically crackles in the mouths of characters like Kinko, Camel, Blackie and Diamond Joe. Much of the texture in Water for Elephants is built upon real events chronicled in circus archives, and from the personal recollections of circus workers and performers.

Admiration and liking for the characters allow us to accept the almost too sweet happy ending on both sides of the story—salvation from a circus tragedy at one end, and from a depressing old age in a nursing home at the other. Water for Elephants is ultimately escapist literature rich in the elements that keep us turning pages. The midgets, freaks, small town rubes, the sequins and cotton candy, the earthy circus ground and love, all invite our submersion in Jacob and Rosie’s world.

At Amazon and at BetterWorldBooks (cheaper, free US shipping, greener, serving global literacy)


  1. Nice review. And, yes, a fun and entertaining read.

  2. I have read with enjoyment this wonderful book; and I, too, recommend it highly. It makes one appreciate that unless our life ends too soon, we will all experience older age and the things, both positive and negative, that go along with it. I loved the remeniscing of Jacob and his life in the circus.


About Me

My photo
Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America