Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Circus Life During the Depression Years
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Published in 2006 Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen became a bestselling book worldwide. After listening to a staff member talk to my customers, day after day, about how much she enjoyed this book I decided it was time to read it. I didn’t think I really had an interest in reading a novel where most of the action takes place in a circus, but in the end one of the things I most enjoyed about the novel was the amount I learned about life in a traveling circus in the depression years in the United States.
I am old enough to remember the circus coming to the small New Brunswick town where my aunts and cousins lived when I was a child. The excitement of watching the tents go up and the midway grow. I didn’t think about how the circus arrived – it was near the train tracks so it is very possible that even in the 1950’s the circus still traveled by train. There were animals and strange people that could be seen for the price of a ticket. I’m not so sure that there was any of the “adults only” entertainment that Jacob Jankowski discovered during the time that he lived with the circus in the 1930’s.
It is revealed early on in the novel that Jacob’s parents are killed, and he is left bereaved and penniless, just prior to taking his final exams that would qualify him to be a veterinarian. With overwhelming grief and shock he finds himself hitching a ride on a train as so many did at that time – and as luck would have it, the train he has jumped on to is a transporting a circus across the American continent for one long summer of Jacob Jankowski’s young life.
We also meet another Jacob Jankowski – an elderly man – in his 90’s, living in a facility for the aged – his family visit once a week. This Jacob spends his days causing trouble among his peers and re-visiting past memories and sharing his life story with the reader.
For the privileged, and educated, Jacob life in the circus is a shock. He is allowed to stay with the circus because of his veterinary knowledge – the fact that he did not graduate does not matter. We then meet all of the people that make up the circus family, the oddballs, the outsiders who could not find a comfortable place with their own families but have found a home with the circus.
We learn that the circus was never short of alcohol during the prohibition years – they simply picked it up on a route through Canada. We also learn about the conditions in which the animals and the people lived – and how often the circus was not welcomed in certain towns.
We first meet Jacob in the prologue to the novel, as an alarm sounds in the circus grounds, and we discover that there is a stampede in the big top. Jacob rushes to the tent because he knows that Marlena is there – and he witnesses something that he has never spoken of since. We won’t find out until the end of the novel.
As the novel begins we learn Jacob’s story and we then meet Marlena, the wife of the circus manager and ringleader, August Rosenbluth. We meet Camel, and Grady and the other men who take Jacob under their wings and protect him from the actions of his youthful idealism.
This circus is a second-tier circus – well below the successful Ringling Brothers – one of many traveling the continent at this time. The depression makes it hard for a circus to survive – many find themselves bankrupt, and animals are sold to others, sometimes at the sides of train tracks. In this way an elephant is secured and Marlena, who has performed her act on the back of horses to great acclaim, will now perform on the elephant. It is Jacob’s job to look after all of the animals, but it is the elephant who wins his heart, and the heart of Marlena.
This is a novel that will teach you things you never knew you needed to know about circus life in the Great Depression – and I especially enjoyed reading about the life of this elderly man, who lived in a past that no one would understand today. If you missed it when it was first published, as I had, it’s time to read it now.