Book Review by Zinta Aistars
· Paperback: 350 pages
· Publisher: Algonquin Books, 2007
· Price: $13.95
· ISBN-10: 1565125606
· ISBN-13: 978-1565125605
I’ve been to the circus only once in my life, as a small child, towed along by my parents for what they surely thought would be a treat. It wasn’t. We never went again. Even as a small child, I seemed to instinctively pick up on the abuse required to get wild animals to do what they do in the three rings of a circus. If nothing else, the sight of such wonderful creatures as elephants, lions, tigers, bears and various others, forced to do what they would not normally do but for cheap human entertainment, galled me. I loved animals. I loved them at a distance, to view them in either their natural habitat or through some telescopic lens that would keep the disruption of their lives in the wild at a minimum. For that reason, out of my respect for their wildness, I have avoided both the circus and zoos.
Sara Gruen’s novel, Water for Elephants, reinforced my decision. It is the story of Jacob Jankowski, both at age 23 and at age 90-something (he can’t clearly recall, as he narrates the story in a series of flashbacks from the nursing home where he is at present wasting away his final days). He does not run away to the circus for the usual romantic reasons of seeking adventure and freedom, as it is commonly viewed. His parents have died in a car crash, and he finds himself without any inheritance, a veterinary student who must suddenly face the need to become financially self-sufficient. He can no longer afford to remain in school. Instead, he hops a train that carries all that is the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Through his eyes we come to see the behind-the-scenes reality of the circus.
The star of this show, this book, is Rosie the elephant. She is the center point, and around her tangle the many eccentric characters: Uncle Al, the sadistic circus boss; August, the equally sadistic animal trainer, and his wife, Marlena, entrapped in the marriage, but quickly returning the love Jacob shows her and hoping for escape; and many others, circus hands and assorted circus characters, midgets and clowns and fat ladies and circus prostitutes, each with their own sad story.
The story moves quickly, interspersed with fascinating black and white photos illustrating typical circus scenes of the day and adding historical credence. Gruen’s writing skill is evident in keeping the pages turning and involving the reader, educating and tugging at heart strings as we witness scenes of cruelty against both human and animal. It is a not a literarily honed writing style, but an involving and entertaining one. We are moved, and we wish to know what happens to this array of colorful characters, even if the ending is quite predictable in its revelation of who murdered August and what action the aging Jacob will take at first opportunity to escape the nursing home.