Water For Elephants is a fun story about a man named Jacob, told from two perspectives: one as an old man in a nursing home, the other from when he almost graduated college to be a veterinarian. Life has different plans for young Jacob, and before he knows what's happening, he has become part of a travelling circus troupe!
Water For Elephants By Sara Gruen
This action filled story is an interesting tale about life in a Circus during the Depression Era of the United States in the 1930's.
Water For Elephants
The Depression Era in the U.S.
Water for Elephants takes the reader on a wild ride to unexpected places, eclectic people, and heroes and heroines of both the human and animal worlds. The story depicts a realistic portrayal of daily life for people who work for a circus, both as performers and crew. One also gets vivid scenes of life’s daily difficulties and the harsh realities people had to endure during the Great Depression Era of the 1930’s in the United States. Although this reader heard first hand stories of how hard life was then, somehow a scene discussing how circus crew slept with their shoes on and tied together so they wouldn’t be stolen, just makes the issue of scarcity much more clear. If a sick person couldn’t perform all that a job entailed, they just “disappeared,” meaning they were thrown off the train to die, so the job could go to a more able bodied person. It was through reading these chilling descriptions of Depression Era life that really made this reader understand the desperation these people faced each day.
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A Change In Plans
Jacob Jankowski is one of the protagonists of this tale, and readers get to know his character at two important periods of his life. The first time Jacob speaks in the story, it is as an old man in a nursing home, whose age is either ninety or ninety-three, “one or the other.” His wife has passed on, his children are getting old, and do not always honor their good intentions to visit. Jacob is a cantankerous patient, giving the nursing staff a hard time about mostly anything, although they come to love him and realize much of his bluster is just that. However, it becomes obvious as the story progresses that he has all his wits about him and also a good sense of humor. Jacob recalls the period that he worked for the circus as the happiest in his life, and by the end of the tale, it is clear why that is so.
The reader meets the twenty three year old version of Jacob about two weeks before he graduates college to earn his Veterinary degree, ready to join his Father’s established Veterinary practice. His parents are killed in a tragic accident, and unbeknownst to Jacob, have re-mortgaged their home to pay his tuition at Cornell college. Apparently his Father was letting his patients pay him in food, services, or other bartering because of the lack of money during the Depression. Although Jacob is distraught, he tries to take his final exams, but has an anxiety attack and runs out of the exam room. He just walks until nightfall, until he hears a train in the distance. With no future plans, money, or thought, he jumps up on the passing train, and instantly changes the course of his life. But whether he is twenty three, or ninety three, Jacob is adventurous, makes snap decisions, and is ruled by his emotions.
Jacob Joins The Circus
When young Jacob leaps upon the passing train, he has to grab onto an iron bar, and point his leg at the undercarriage of the train. Then he summons up all his strength, lifts himself to the edge, and scrapes his way through a doorway. He finds himself in a small baggage car surrounded by four men sitting on burlap sacks, passing around a bottle of booze in a brown bag. At first the men think he’s just another homeless bum who hopped on the train, and another mouth to feed. Once they determine that Jacob is not running from the law, and find he has experience working with animals, Grady, Bill, Camel and Blackie decide he’s OK, and take him to “Uncle Al” Bunkel, the Ringmaster of Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
Uncle Al is a smart ass, and offers Jacob a position “getting water for elephants.” He doesn’t mean this, because the one reason this circus is second to Ringling Brothers is the fact they have no elephant in their show yet. Also, apparently elephants drink such enormous amounts of water each day, they are kept near it, as a person would have to spend all day filling a tub to keep them hydrated. Al Bunkel calls himself “Equestrian Director and Superintendant of Animals.” He asks Jacob if he’s ever seen their circus show. All Jacob has seen is the lovely Marlena, moving gracefully from horse to horse in a pink sequined outfit, as twelve beautiful black and white ones run around a ring. He later finds that Al is both the lovely Marlena’s husband, and a psychopath, disguising this by pretending kindness and hiding behind his silk top hat and silver cane. But Jacob is allowed to stay when they realize he had only two weeks to go before he would have received his Veterinary diploma. They let him sleep in the car with the horses at first. Later, Jacob bunks with Kinko, a dwarf with a bad tempered Russel terrier, on a crumpled, damp horse blanket filled with vermin.
Circus Life Is Hard
Water For Elephants shows the reader that circus life is very hard work, and the performers are treated like royalty compared to the conditions the crew must endure. Most of the crew has no family, and no work is available anywhere else if they lose their circus job, although some weeks they do not even get paid, only fed and allowed to sleep aboard the train. Many people did not have food or a roof over their heads in the Depression, so everyone had to work hard to keep whatever they did have. The crew is not allowed to bother the performers, so to pass through the moving train, they jump from car to car on the roof while the train is moving, a risky act at best.
Rosie The Elephant Joins The Troupe
There are many light hearted events in Water For Elephants to make the story a good one despite the hardships. Marlena’s act with the horses is very popular, and the fat lady, other animal acts, popcorn, candy, and just the fact the circus comes to town helps people get their minds off their problems. Jacob is falling in love with the animals, even though he does not have his own Veterinary practice, he is in charge of keeping the animals well and helping them when ill. So he is still able to utilize the skills he learned from his Father and from college.
The second protagonist in this exciting tale is Rosie, the gray elephant with a mind of her own, who finally becomes part of Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show. Most of the crew loves her because of her huge amber eyes that are always filled with mischief, and the silly things she does. The circus finally acquires her from another circus which goes out of business. For several weeks the lemonade is missing, and the crew is being blamed for it. Finally, Rosie is caught in the act of drinking it herself. She is smart enough to lift her stake from the ground, get the lemonade to drink, and innocently return to her spot. For some reason she cannot understand commands from the people trying to perfect her act, and people are calling her dumb. The reader will find it really funny when they discover what the problem is.
The Circus Changes Jacob Forever
The story goes back and forth from both the young and old Jacob talking about circus life. There are villains, heroes, love affairs, murder, stampedes, and all kinds of crazy goings on at Benzinis Brothers. Young Jacob matures a lot in the few years he works there, and his life is forever affected by his decision to jump on that train. Old Jacob gets to have one more terrific experience before the story ends, and the audience has no reason to believe he will not have many more. If you read one piece of escapist fiction this year, read Water for Elephants. It is an enchanting and very different tale for adults, and will take you away from your own everyday problems for a few very enjoyable hours!
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