To see a circus is to see a whole new world: a world of magic and impossibilities, of incredible talent and risk, of people who were considered outcasts by others who all came together to perform as a family. When the circus first came about, it was a cheap source of entertainment for those who could not afford extravagant outings. It was a place where people who were different could make money by showing off their peculiarities to others. It was a place for people to turn to for work when there was none to be found. Water for Elephants, a circus fiction written by Sara Gruen, is an excellent piece of literature that reveals both the majesty and chaos found within circus life.
Jacob Jankowski is in his nineties and living in a nursing home, yet his mind still resides in the young man he once was. In 1931, a tragic accident was the first stepping stone to lead him to jump onto a train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Everyone who worked for Benzini Brothers was just lucky to have a job in the early part of the Great Depression and Jacob became part of the hired help as a veterinarian for the animals. Joining the circus changed his life for that was where he met Marlena, a young woman who was married, but he found himself falling for, and Rosie, an elephant purchased to keep the circus alive during the unforgiving Depression. And while the people struggled for survival in the outside world, the unlikely trio found themselves fighting for survival as the dangers lingering within the circus threaten their very lives.
Gruen’s talent for storytelling and writing is evident to whoever reads any of her works and is clearly seen in her well-known story Water for Elephants. Her beautiful and captivating writing style expresses the truth that being human and living life is not always easy. Being human means one is nearing death with each passing moment and during the time alive, there will be challenges and trials; however, living can be full of wonderful things like feeling loved by others or seeing beauty in nature and feeling the triumph of succeeding the hard challenges. She reveals these wonders and tragedies of life through her story’s characters and setting.
Gruen shows excellent workmanship in jumping between past and present through her main character, Jacob. Readers of any age will pity Jacob as an old man and think about their own mortality as he reveals how terrible it is to grow old. Readers will also pity Jacob as a young man and the struggles and challenges he is constantly faced with, but they will also root for him to ultimately succeed. The only downside with Gruen’s jumping between the past and the present is the fact that she writes in the present tense for both times. This may have been an artistic way of expressing how Jacob feels like he is still his younger self in 1931 when he is, in actuality, over ninety years old. This does not make the jump between past and present confusing for readers, but the story may have benefited more from present and past tense writing.
Many of the other characters of the story are met in Jacob’s past when he arrives at the circus. Very few of the circus workers and performers are talked about in depth, some of the handful mentioned being Walter and Camel who Jacob becomes very close to. It would have been nice to read more about the actual circus and how close of a family these people came to be during harsh times, especially in the Benzini Brothers circus; however, readers will get a good look at how animals were treated in traveling circuses and will also fall in love with the elephant Rosie. Her adorable nature and her closeness to Jacob will make readers want an elephant for a companion. Rosie is not the only lady in Jacob’s life as Marlena is also a well-rounded female character. The romance between her and Jacob is well-developed and while there is an immediate spark between the two, it is not a quick romance. This will keep readers turning pages, longing for the two to be together while knowing full well that Marlena is married to a deeply troubled man.
When it comes to the historical aspects of the story, readers will definitely notice the research Gruen must have conducted before writing. Everything she writes about, from the Great Depression to traveling circuses to how animals and employees were treated in the circuses, is believable. While her traveling circus of the Benzini Brothers is fictional, she took aspects from real circuses and gave a nod to them through characters and events. She reveals parts of her research at the end of her story which provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbit for readers. This may encourage readers intrigued by the circus to conduct research of their own upon completion of Gruen’s story. She also inserted old pictures from old circuses at the start of her chapters which gives her story even more of a realistic feel.
Many have been to a circus and it is an unforgettable experience for the young and old alike. And while Water for Elephants is for a more mature audience, many readers may remember the magic they felt the first time they watched a show. Gruen’s story not only reveals the marvels of early 20th century traveling circuses, but also the mortality of human life. There are struggles and at some point, every human will die, but it is the wonders and successes that humans experience that make life worth living. Through beautiful writing and research, Gruen has taken a fictional story and made it seem incredibly real.