Wednesday, June 22, 2011

[Book Review] WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen


Nancy reviews WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen (Algonquin Books, 2006)

Everything about Water for Elephants, except the ending, is so on point that even readers not of the Great Depression should find this story believable. A plausible tale wouldn’t be enough in itself, however, to inspire readers. Excellent historical fiction must also use its factual base to entertain and provoke thought, which Sara Gruen nails in her bestselling novel.

Without giving up too much of the plot, the book is about ninety-something-year-old Jacob Jankowski who waits 70 years to reveal his experiences with Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He’d barely reached manhood when his parents’ simultaneous deaths produced the instant poverty that led him to hop a train for circus life after dropping out of vet school in his senior year.

All that follows forms a mesmerizing adventure that’s hard to put down. Eye strain was all that prevented my reading it from cover to cover in one sitting. For starters, the characters are unforgettable. They include Marlena, the star equestrian act and Jacob’s future wife; Marlena’s first husband, the handsome and charismatic circus boss who is unspeakably cruel at times; Rosie the elephant whose lemonade transgressions made me laugh out loud; a menagerie of other exotic animals; and a sad array of human freaks.

Jacob’s account of that desperate time in his life (spanning nearly seven years) is engrossing for the sights the reader easily visualizes and the sounds and smells of the big top that couldn’t seem more real. It’s also a commentary on the impact of circuses on Depression-era rubes, slang for gullible patrons. The circus vocabulary in general is an education for wordsmiths, the origin of “roustabout” being the most enlightening for me.

Overall the story is so wonderful that naysaying the final chapter feels almost mean-spirited. For liability reasons alone, nothing about the closing could happen in real life. While mildly disappointing, all is forgiven. This fascinating book has me understanding more about my deceased grandparents and my surviving mother, born in 1929, whose lives were forever changed by the Depression. My altered perception of them is one of the gifts of this story.

Nancy Campbell, LINC Department

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