Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is the story of a young man who joins a traveling circus during the Great Depression. It’s well researched and includes period photos. It’d be a really fun book to use as the starter fiction for the junior project. Though it’s not true historical fiction, it’s the sort of book that many English teachers at COHS will accept when they assign the reading of historical fiction or period pieces. It’s recently been a best seller and has elements to appeal to just about anyone—adventure, romance, revenge, and ultimately murder.
Jacob Jankowski is on the verge of taking his final exams at Cornell and becoming a veterinarian when his parents are killed in an automobile accident. Jacob’s world suddenly ends. He finds that his parents have mortgaged their home to pay for his education; the bank repossesses it. With nothing of his old life remaining, Jacob jumps a train on his way to living as a ‘hobo.’ However, without knowing it, he’s jumped a circus train, and as a man with valuable veterinary skills, he is offered a job with the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
Circus life is tough; there’s a pecking order within the cast of workers and the performers are the stars. Just about everyone is mistreated, including both animals and humans, by the unscrupulous owner and manager, Uncle Al. Jacob almost seems doomed from the start. He must room with Kinko, an angry dwarf who’d like to blame some of his life’s misery on Jacob; he falls in loves with the stunning Marlena, who performs stunts with horses. Unfortunately, Marlena is married to a deeply mentally-ill man (psychotic?) who happens to be the animal trainer and very high in the pecking order. August is often brutal to the animals. Jacob, as you would guess from his profession, has a difficult time abiding this. He is particularly disturbed by August’s treatment of Rosie, the circus’s only elephant, who seems not to be able to obey commands and yet also shows deep intelligence. He discovers that Rosie only responds to Polish. This, however, does not stop August’s mistreatment of her.
The story is told as a series of memories of a contemporary Jacob—he’s ninety-three years old and resides in an assisted living facility; he suffers the many indignities of old age. How the story of Rosie, Marlena and Jacob turns out; and how the story of Jacob the old man concludes, were both a little too neat for me to believe either one. However, circus life, as it is presented to the consumer, is magical. So in this case, a fantasy ending isn’t so bad.