Thursday, May 21, 2009

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen - Review

Before reading Sara Gruen’s wonderful Water for Elephants, I can remember two other circus books. The first was a sunny and optimistic picture of the world of a circus veterinarian at Ringling Brothers Circus by J.Y. Henderson. Written in 1951 and called Circus Doctor, it told the true story of a young veterinarian coming to work for the circus and having to invent techniques for treating wild animals, because there were no precedents for a position such as his. I must have bought my copy from Scholastic Books for a quarter in my fifth grade class. Spangle by Gary Jennings presented a much different picture. What I most remember, as I remember from a couple of other Jennings books, is his grotesque, and sometimes perverted, characters whose warpage provides too much diversion from the story. On the other hand, Water for Elephants tells a fascinating circus story filled with a range of believable characters, a deep love for animals, and thorough pictures of circus life during the Great Depression.
Narrated by the ninety year old (or is it ninety-three) retired veterinarian Jacob Jankowski living in an assisted living facility and visited only rarely by his now elderly children, the story is told in flashback to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob arrives at the circus when he is unable to complete his veterinary final exams at Cornell after the traumatic deaths of his parents in an automobile accident. He walks out of the exam hall, down the railroad tracks, and into a new world peopled with the wonderful characters Sara Gruen has concocted. Gruen has clearly done her research on the world of the circus. Travelling from town to town in the midst of the Great Depression, the circus picks up pieces of other itinerant shows down on their luck. The owner, Uncle Al, is a lying and conniving character willing to cheat his employees and, if necessary red light them along the way when their presence becomes inconvenient for him. Uncle Al’s chief lieutenant is August Rosenbluth, the manager of all the animal acts, who’s married to the lovely equestrienne Marlena. When Uncle Al and August discover the skills Jacob has, he quickly becomes an important cog in the operation, always without losing his values.
Gruen is perhaps at her best in communicating the qualities of the animals without ever condescending to them or anthropomorphizing them. Bobo the chimpanzee, the Orangutan, and, most plausibly, Rosie the elephant take on character and personality without ever being confused for humans. Yet the readers’ care and compassion for these animals is strong and real. Our anger at those who hurt them rather than trying to understand them is deep. Gruen has written other books about our relationships with animals, and I want to read them.
The story develops around Jacop’s deepening relationship with the dwarf Walter and the alcoholic old circus tramp Camel as well as the complex triangle involving August and Marlenam August’s lovely wife. It is complicated by August’s insane rages alternating with his engaging charm. At his best, August is dangerous; at his worst – deranged. Jacob’s compassion for Marlena turns into repressed love as August becomes increasingly suspicious of a relationship not yet developed. All this is placed within the context of a down at the hills travelling circus and the towns where it stops. Meanwhile, the elderly Jacob, living in an assisted living facility where his children seldom visit him and he has nothing in common with the other residents, learns that a circus is coming to town. His awareness of the circus triggers memories of his pass that vividly fill his imagination and dreams. The story moves backwards and forwards in time as Jacob relives a hard but fulfilling past in a bland and empty present. His excitement increases as the time approaches for the circus to come to town.
Sara Gruen has written an arresting and intriguing novel with broad appeal. It is available in trade paperback from Algonquin Books, or at your independent bookstore as well as chains and on-line.