Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: Water For Elephants



I have only ever been to one circus in my lifetime, on a school field trip many years ago. And although the majority of the memories of that event are now lost in the three decades plus that followed, I can still recall wondering where all the performers went after the show was over, I imagined them in my young mind sleeping in rows in the middle of the sawdust circle and atop the benches that served as seats for the patrons.

Decades later I have my answer after reading Water For Elephants, a book that really touched my heart on many levels. Not only is it a fine record of some of the conditions and lifestyles of circus performers and workers during the great depression, but it also a love story and a final chapter of a man's life that is brimming with emotional and exciting content that keeps you turning the pages to see what happens next to the crew of the Benzini Bros Circus.



Jacob Janokowski is a young man about to pass his veterinarian’s exam from a top university when tragedy takes his parents away from him, leaving him asset less as his family was struggling as much as any other people during the great depression and took pity on their poor clients by taking payments in food and other material goods rather then money. Despondent, Jacob jumps an unknown train in the dark which is revealed to belong to a circus. Having nowhere to go and nothing to go back to Jacob latches on to the circus workers first as a regular worker and later as a vet to the animals in the menagerie.

It would be giving much of the charm and atmosphere away by telling you the rest of the basic plot points, because the story itself is as old as time itself and nothing that shocking or ground breaking. The charm is in the details and the magnificent settings in both eras in Jacob’s lifetime in the circus on the railways of America and the nursing home we all might one day end up in ourselves, they were painted very realistically and poignantly in the readers minds.
Author Sara Gruen


Jacob himself is a treat of a protagonist, a man who even at ninety (Or ninety three), seems to be very sure of himself and able to be almost as strong in his old age as in his youth of terms of his ability to take care of himself as well as still being able to make clear mostly level headed decisions. The clear cut almost palpable sense of knowing a character is not just limited to Jacob however as one thing author Sara Gruen gets right on the money is how to make a character known to the reader, giving here creations a sense of self and real emotion seldom seen in fiction. This gives the book a great lift and a depth it might not have otherwise had.

In looking up this book to prepare to write this review I saw that the movie version did not do too well which is a shame the book version is a wonderful period love story with sparkling characterizations and a great timeless setting that should have been easy to put to film. Water For Elephants is also a sure fire example of how National Writing Month efforts can indeed turn out a very good story indeed, and even the simplest of ideas can be spun into words that capture our minds and transport us to distant worlds.

- Thomas Spychalski

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