Thirteen Things about Water for Elephants [#23]

After finishing the novel Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen Monday night, I was tempted to start reading it all over again, but someone had already put another book in my hands (The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster) and suggested it as a follow-up. I’m more than halfway through Auster’s book already, yet find myself still steeped in the ambiance created by Sara Gruen, and her characters are still very much present with me. There’s no question that I will read it again; I just can’t wait to plunge into Gruen’s world again, filled with complex characters and interesting layers of meaning, as well as her treatment of topics I’ve always found fascinationg: the world of the circus and depression-era America. Here are 13 random things about Water for Elephants that come to mind:

1. Our protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, claims to be ninety or ninety three (he’s lost count so he’s not sure). He is currently residing in an old folks home which he hates, and is retelling the story about a three-month period that marked a huge transition period. The story goes back and forth between the prohibition 30’s and the present as Jacob reminisces about events that occurred 70 years ago.
2. Young Jacob was studying at Cornell University to be a veterinarian and was close to graduating when a family tragedy struck and changed the course of his life forever.
3. Sara Gruen actually started writing this story during NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November and is a challenge inviting all aspiring and established writers to write a 50,000 novella in 30 days. I participated last year but I don’t think you’ll be seeing a book as a result of that experiment.
4. Jacob joins the circus by coincidence. He jumps on a train one night after walking out on his final exams. He only realizes where he is the next morning when he sees the train cars emblazoned Benzini Bros Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
5. As soon as the circus folk find out about his studies, Jacob is hired as the official circus vet and becomes responsible for the traveling menagerie, which includes (but is not limited to): a lion with no teeth, a friendly monkey called Bobo, a panther, a giraffe, an orangutan, 10 Arabian show horses (5 white, 5 black) and a loveable smiling elephant — who may be the smartest or the dumbest creature ever — called Rosie.
6. The circus folk described in his book are so colorful and the daily drama that makes up their lives so all-pervasive that it quickly became clear to me that most of the action happens on the train. The show itself is just a small part of their daily routine.
7. Even though all this is taking place during prohibition, there are vast amounts of alcohol consumed on the train — for some it’s moonshine and Jamaican Ginger Extract (also known as jake) while others enjoy fine bourbon and champagne. It’s a miracle they all manage to stand up after their drinking binges, let alone do balancing acts.
8. One character, a rustabout known as Camel, suddenly loses the use of his hands and feet. This is attributed to his lifelong habit of drinking jake. The drink, although considered toxic, was especially popular during the prohibition, being cheap and readily available. Although there are no precise numbers, it’s estimated that jake paralysis apparently affected between 30,000 and 50,000 victims. There was no known cure at the time.
9. Jacob gets involved in a dangerous love triangle with a beautiful married woman who’s husband happens to be a violent sociopath (described as a paranoid schizophrenic towards the end of the book). This relationship eventually leads to the truly spectacular demise of The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. I’m not spoiling anything here, as this particular scene is featured right from the start in the prologue.
10. As Jacob learns about the hierarchies within the circus — workers treated as cattle and performers enjoying preferential treatment which is doled out according to how important to the show they are considered — he is continually confronted to the brutality and injustice the workers are subjected to, for instance worker’s wages being held back indefinitely when funds are low (while performers still receive theirs) and the practice of “redlighting”, a term used to describe the throwing of circus workers off the moving train as a punitive measure or simply to avoid paying them.
11. It quickly becomes clear that Jacob truly cares for and loves animals, but there are all too many sickening passages where his nemesis takes out his uncontrollable rages with vicious and repeated beatings of Rosie, who is probably much too smart and much too stubborn for her own good but certainly doesn’t deserve that sort of treatment.
12. In an interview with the author, Sara Gruen at the end of the book, she explains how she went about to do her research and what some of her inspirations were for this story. She confirms that the biblical story of Jacob in the book of Genesis was one layer that people might read into.
13. I just finished reading the book a couple of days ago, but I already miss Rosie terribly. I wonder if my landlords would mind me keeping an elephant in my flat?

Did I mention how much I enjoyed this book? I really really did. So far, my favorite of the year.


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