Water for Elephants is a book by Sara Gruen published on 2006 which greatly depicts the troubles of a young man situated in the Great Depression.
The story revolves on the life of Jacob Jankowski and his life in the circus program named “Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth” in which he worked as a veterinarian after finding out that his parents are killed in an accident and is unable to pay for his tuition at an Ivy League university. He runs away and jumps into a moving train where he meets interesting people, workers on the circus, including a married woman, Marlena, whose husband is an animal trainer, who turns out to have a mental disease and is also quite violent, especially to his wife, and later on, Jacob. Basically the whole story centers on Jacob and his relationship with Marlena.
Aside from this, the book was set in the late 1920’s a period most commonly known as the Great Depression, in which the economy greatly suffered, leaving people jobless and poor. Although, I don’t know much about the Great Depression, I feel like Gruen did a good job in describing the situation back then. The recession was clearly seen when the circus’ top horse threatened them with bankruptcy as well when workers who did a poor job were ‘red-lighted’, showing that keeping around poor workers will only be a waste of resource, something that was scarce at that time. I felt like I was in a black and white vintage retro film, dangling above circus workers, seeing them talk, and act and treat each other.
There were characters that captured my attention such as in the case of Uncle Al, the owner of the circus who was clearly shown as evil, having no remorse for his workers. He is hungry for power, wanting to be recognized as the best circus show, another was Marlena, Jacob’s lover and later on, his wife. She is portrayed to be very caring to the animals. I feel like Marlena could’ve been described more aside from the star studded woman on a show. Perhaps the author could’ve centered on her more, after all, she does play a major part.
For me, the part where it really piqued my interest was the climax, where in the red-lighted workers set the mistreated animals free, causing a stampede which lead to the lover’s escape after the story’s antagonist’s deaths.
My heart went to Jacob, from the very start (which was set in the present time with Jacob, an aging bitter and rude man in a nursing home). Maybe it’s because I have a soft spot for old people. I felt sad for him when he realized that no one was coming to get and take him to the circus, making it more seem that he is old with his relatives clearly not remembering him. And I felt especially bad for him seeing him at the very end of the book trying to relive the past, of him working on the circus where he asks a circus owner to allow him to work as a ticket seller. I will take his decision of jumping on the moving circus train as a method of the author to connect to readers who are also trying to find themselves, especially at a young age such as Jacob’s. I feel like it greatly captured the troubles of a young man whose parents have just died and is in the middle of a breakdown.
Water for elephants is truly a great book. It is one of the books I’ve read which made me felt like my time was well spent. Albeit a bit slow, especially in the beginning, the author still managed to capture my attention back. It depicts that not only fun and entertainment lies behind the circus trains, but a majority of real life troubling issues as well. It shows that everyone has a place, where they will feel at home, even at what seems to be a damaged, messy, and always on the move place. Such as in the case of Jacob’s.