Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants

4.3 15610
by Sara Gruen
     
 

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As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the… See more details below

Overview

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
To replicate the salty vernacular of a Depression-era circus, Gruen, in her third novel, did extensive research in archives and in the field, and her work pays off admirably. The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth is a roving fleabag ensemble of “cooch tents,” “kinkers,” and “hay burners,” whose tyrannical m.c. is always on the lookout for “born freaks.” Unfortunately, Jacob Jankowski, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, carries less conviction than the period idiom. Recalling, near the end of his life, his work as a veterinarian for the circus and his love for a colleague’s wife, he comes off as so relentlessly decent—an unwavering defender of animals, women, dwarves, cripples, and assorted ethnic groups—that he ceases to be interesting as a character.
Elizabeth Judd
Circuses showcase human beings at their silliest and most sublime, and many unlikely literary figures have been drawn to their glitzy pageantry, soaring pretensions and metaphorical potential (Marianne Moore leaps to mind). Unsurprisingly, writers seem liberated by imagining a spectacle where no comparison ever seems inflated, no development impossible. For better and for worse, Gruen has fallen under the spell. With a showman's expert timing, she saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
With its spotlight on elephants, Gruen's romantic page-turner hinges on the human-animal bonds that drove her debut and its sequel (Riding Lessons and Flying Changes)-but without the mass appeal that horses hold. The novel, told in flashback by nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski, recounts the wild and wonderful period he spent with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus he joined during the Great Depression. When 23-year-old Jankowski learns that his parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving him penniless, he drops out of Cornell veterinary school and parlays his expertise with animals into a job with the circus, where he cares for a menagerie of exotic creatures, including an elephant who only responds to Polish commands. He also falls in love with Marlena, one of the show's star performers-a romance complicated by Marlena's husband, the unbalanced, sadistic circus boss who beats both his wife and the animals Jankowski cares for. Despite her often clich d prose and the predictability of the story's ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book. (May 26) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
VOYA - Kim Zach
Just as the smell of popcorn and the allure of fiery sword swallowers and exotic animals once drew spectators to the big top, readers will be drawn to this story of life in a traveling circus during the Depression. After Jacob Jankowski's parents die in a tragic car accident, the bank repossesses their home, which had been mortgaged to finance Jacob's veterinary studies. Jacob jumps a train carrying the Benzini Brothers' Most Spectacular Show on Earth and is hired on because of his veterinary skills. The circus world is not all glamour and glitz, Jacob soon learns, but a hardscrabble life where both animals and workers are exploited and often mistreated. The author brings alive the circus culture with historical details and a wonderful menagerie of characters, including Uncle Al, the unscrupulous business manger; Kinko, a bitter dwarf; Marlena, the beautiful horse-riding star of the show; and Rosie, an elephant with personality and a secret. The story is told in flashback, through the eyes of Jacob, now ninety-three years old and in an assisted-living facility. His memory is jolted by the arrival of a circus in the parking lot nearby and his mind wanders back in time. The book's many complex layers-adventure, love, history, suspense, and a surprise ending-and Gruen's sensual prose are enhanced by period archive circus photographs at the beginning of each chapter. Mature readers will probably most enjoy this adult novel, but students interested in the 1930s or animals will also be fascinated by Gruen's tale.
Library Journal
When his parents are killed in a traffic accident, Jacob Jankowski hops a train after walking out on his final exams at Cornell, where he had hoped to earn a veterinary degree. The train turns out to be a circus train, and since it's the Depression, when someone with a vet's skills can attach himself to a circus if he's lucky, Jacob soon finds himself involved with the animal acts-specifically with the beautiful young Marlena, the horse rider, and her husband, August. Jacob falls for Marlena immediately, and the ensuing triangle is at the center of this novel, which follows the circus across the states. Jacob learns the ins and outs of circus life, in this case under the rule of the treacherous Uncle Al, who cheats the workers and deals roughly with patrons who complain about blatant false advertising and rip-off exhibits. Jacob and Marlena are attracted to each other, but their relationship is fairly innocent until it becomes clear that August is not merely jealous but dangerously mentally deranged. Old-fashioned and endearing, this is an enjoyable, fast-paced story told by the older Jacob, now in his nineties in a nursing home. From the author of Riding Lessons; recommended for all libraries.-Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Gruen (Riding Lesson, not reviewed) brings to life the world of a Depression-era traveling circus. Jacob Jankowski, a retired veterinarian living out his days in an assisted-living facility, drifts in and out of his memories: Only days before graduating from vet school in 1931, young Jake learns his parents have died and left him penniless. Leaving school, he hops a train that happens to belong to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. When the circus's owner, Uncle Al, learns Jake's educational background, he quickly hires him as the circus vet. This position allows Jake access to the various strata of circus society, from lowly crewmembers who seldom see actual money in their pay envelopes to the performers and managers who drink champagne and dress in evening wear for dinner. Jake is soon in love, both with Marlena, an equestrienne married to the head animal trainer, August, and with Rosie, an elephant who understands only Polish (which Polish-American Jake conveniently speaks). At first, August and Marlena seem happily married, but Jake soon realizes that August's charm can quickly turn to cruelty. He is charismatic but bipolar (subtle echoes of Sophie's Choice). Worse, he beats Rosie, and comes across as having no love for animals. When August assumes Marlena and Jake are fooling around-having acknowledged their feelings, they have allowed themselves only a kiss-he beats Marlena, and she leaves him. Uncle Al tries blackmailing Jake to force him to reunite Marlena with August for the sake of the circus. Jake does not comply, and one fatality leads to another until the final blowup. The leisurely recreation of the circus's daily routine is lovely and mesmerizing, even ifreaders have visited this world already in fiction and film, but the plot gradually bogs down in melodrama and disintegrates by its almost saccharine ending. Despite genuine talent, Gruen misses the mark.
People Magazine
"Novelist Gruen unearths a lost world with her rich and surprising portrayal of life in a traveling circus in the '30s. An emotional tale that will please history buffs—and others." —People
Entertainment Weekly
"For pure story, this colorful, headlong tale of a Depression-era circus simply can't be beat. Heroes, villains, romance, a wild-animal stampede! Big fun from page 1."—Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly: "Best & Worst 2007"
New York Times Book Review
"At its finest, Water for Elephants resembles stealth hits like 'The Giant's House,' by Elizabeth McCracken, or 'The Lovely Bones,' by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism. . . . Black-and-white photographs of real American circus scenes from the first half of the century are interspersed throughout the novel, and they brilliantly evoke the dignified power contained in the quieter moments of this unusual brotherhood. . . . With a showman's expert timing, [Gruen] saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale."

New York Times Book Review

The Washington Post
"You'll get lost in the tatty glamour of Gruen's meticulously researched world, from spangled equestrian pageantry and the sleazy side show to an ill-fated night at a Chicago speak-easy"
The Denver Post
“Lively with historical detail and unexpected turns. . . . Water for Elephants is a rich surprise, a delightful gem springing from a fascinating footnote to history that absolutely deserved to be mined.”
The Denver Post
From the Publisher
“This marvelously exciting and satisfying book has been given the engaging audio production it deserves, with a fine reading of young Jacob Jankowski by David LeDoux, in a cracking voice full of youthful passion and high drama, and John Randolph Jones doing the crusty, rusted voice of Jacob at 90.”
AudioFile [Earphones Award Winner]

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781444715989
Publisher:
Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd.
Publication date:
03/28/2011
Product dimensions:
4.30(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate. The cook was behind the counter, scraping his griddle with the edge of a spatula. He had turned off the fryer some time ago, but the odor of grease lingered.

The rest of the midway—so recently writhing with people—was empty but for a handful of employees and a small group of men waiting to be led to the cooch tent. They glanced nervously from side to side, with hats pulled low and hands thrust deep in their pockets. They wouldn’t be dis appointed: somewhere in the back Barbara and her ample charms awaited.

The other townsfolk—rubes, as Uncle Al called them—had already made their way through the menagerie tent and into the big top, which pulsed with frenetic music. The band was whipping through its repertoire at the usual earsplitting volume. I knew the routine by heart—at this very moment, the tail end of the Grand Spectacle was exiting and Lottie, the aerialist, was ascending her rigging in the center ring.

I stared at Grady, trying to process what he was saying. He glanced around and leaned in closer.

“Besides,” he said, locking eyes with me, “it seems to me you’ve got a lot to lose right now.” He raised his eyebrows for emphasis. My heart skipped a beat.

Thunderous applause exploded from the big top, and the band slid seamlessly into the Gounod waltz. I turned instinctively toward the menagerie because this was the cue for the elephant act. Marlena was either preparing to mount or was already sitting on Rosie’s head.

“I’ve got to go,” I said. “Sit,” said Grady. “Eat. If you’re thinking of clearing out, it may be a while before you see food again.”

That moment, the music screeched to a halt. There was an ungodly collision of brass, reed, and percussion—trombones and piccolos skidded into cacophony, a tuba farted, and the hollow clang of a cymbal wavered out of the big top, over our heads and into oblivion. Grady froze, crouched over his burger with his pinkies extended and lips spread wide. I looked from side to side. No one moved a muscle—all eyes were directed at the big top. A few wisps of hay swirled lazily across the hard dirt.

“What is it? What’s going on?” I said.

“Shh,” Grady hissed.

The band started up again, playing “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

“Oh Christ. Oh shit!” Grady tossed his food onto the table and leapt up, knocking over the bench.

“What? What is it?” I yelled, because he was already running away from me.

“The Disaster March!” he screamed over his shoulder.

I jerked around to the fry cook, who was ripping off his apron. “What the hell’s he talking about?”

“The Disaster March,” he said, wrestling the apron over his head. “Means something’s gone bad — real bad.”

“Like what?”

“ Could be anything—fire in the big top, stampede, whatever. Aw sweet Jesus. The poor rubes probably don’t even know it yet.” He ducked under the hinged door and took off.

Chaos—candy butchers vaulting over counters, workmen staggering out from under tent flaps, roustabouts racing headlong across the lot. Anyone and everyone associated with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth barreled toward the big top.

Diamond Joe passed me at the human equivalent of a full gallop.

“ Jacob—it’s the menagerie,” he screamed. “The animals are loose. Go, go, go!”

He didn’t need to tell me twice. Marlena was in that tent. A rumble coursed through me as I approached, and it scared the hell out of me because it was on a register lower than noise. The ground was vibrating.

I staggered inside and met a wall of yak—a great expanse of curlyhaired chest and churning hooves, of flared red nostrils and spinning eyes. It galloped past so close I leapt backward on tiptoe, flush with the canvas to avoid being impaled on one of its crooked horns. A terrified hyena clung to its shoulders.

The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its place was a roiling mass of spots and stripes—of haunches, heels, tails, and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying. A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat—boom. The llama hit the ground, its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star. Chimps screamed and chattered, swinging on ropes to stay above the cats. A wild-eyed zebra zigzagged too close to a crouching lion, who swiped, missed, and darted away, his belly close to the ground.

My eyes swept the tent, desperate to find Marlena. Instead I saw a cat slide through the connection leading to the big top—it was a panther, and as its lithe black body disappeared into the canvas tunnel I braced myself. If the rubes didn’t know, they were about to find out. It took several seconds to come, but come it did—one prolonged shriek followed by another, and then another, and then the whole place exploded with the thunderous sound of bodies trying to shove past other bodies and off the stands. The band screeched to a halt for a second time, and this time stayed silent. I shut my eyes: Please God let them leave by the back end. Please God don’t let them try to come through here.

I opened my eyes again and scanned the menagerie, frantic to find her. How hard can it be to find a girl and an elephant, for Christ’s sake?

When I caught sight of her pink sequins, I nearly cried out in relief—maybe I did. I don’t remember.

She was on the opposite side, standing against the sidewall, calm as a summer day. Her sequins flashed like liquid diamonds, a shimmering beacon between the multicolored hides. She saw me, too, and held my gaze for what seemed like forever. She was cool, languid. Smiling even. I started pushing my way toward her, but something about her expression stopped me cold.

That son of a bitch was standing with his back to her, red-faced and bellowing, flapping his arms and swinging his silver-tipped cane. His high-topped silk hat lay on the straw beside him. She reached for something.

A giraffe passed between us—its long neck bobbing gracefully even in panic—and when it was gone I saw that she’d picked up an iron stake. She held it loosely, resting its end on the hard dirt. She looked at me again, bemused. Then her gaze shifted to the back of his bare head.

“Oh Jesus,” I said, suddenly understanding. I stumbled forward, screaming even though there was no hope of my voice reaching her. “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”

She lifted the stake high in the air and brought it down, splitting his head like a watermelon. His pate opened, his eyes grew wide, and his mouth froze into an O. He fell to his knees and then toppled forward into the straw.

I was too stunned to move, even as a young orangutan flung its elastic arms around my legs.

So long ago. So long. But still it haunts me.

I don’t talk much about those days. Never did. I don’t know why—I worked on circuses for nearly seven years, and if that isn’t fodder for conversation, I don’t know what is.

Actually I do know why: I never trusted myself. I was afraid I’d let it slip. I knew how important it was to keep her secret, and keep it I did — for the rest of her life, and then beyond.

In seventy years, I’ve never told a blessed soul.

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What People are saying about this

Jeanne Ray
"So much more than a tale about a circus, Water for Elephants is a compelling journey not only under the big top, but into the protagonist's heart. Sara Gruen uses her talent as a writer to bring that world alive for the reader: I could smell it, taste it, feel every word of it. This is a fiction reader's dream come true."
author of Julie and Romeo Get Lucky
Joshilyn Jackson
"Gorgeous, brilliant, and superbly plotted, Water for Elephants swept me into the world of the circus during the Depression, and it did not let me go until the very end. I don't think it has let me go, even now. Sara Gruen has a voice to rival John Irving's and I am hopelessly, unabashedly in love with this book. Read it."
author of Gods in Alabama
New York Times Book Review
“Gorgeous, brilliant, and superbly plotted, Water for Elephants swept me into the world of the circus during the Depression, and it did not let me go until the very end. I don’t think it has let me go, even now. Sara Gruen has a voice to rival John Irving’s, and I am hopelessly, unabashedly in love with this book. Read it.”
—Joshilyn Jackson, author of Gods in Alabama

“So much more than a tale about a circus, Water for Elephants is a compelling journey not only under the big top, but into the protagonist’s heart.
Sara Gruen uses her talent as a writer to bring that world alive for the reader: I could smell it, taste it, feel every word of it. This is a fiction reader’s dream come true.”

—Jeanne Ray, author of Julie and Romeo Get Lucky

“In this thrilling, romantic story set in a traveling circus in the 1930s, Sara
Gruen has a big top’s worth of vivid characters and an exhilarating narrative that kept me up all night. From the perseverance of a terrier named
Queenie to the charm of Rosie the elephant, this masterpiece of storytelling is a book about what animals can teach people about love.”

—Susan Cheever, author of My Name Is Bill
"Water for Elephants resembles stealth hits like The Giant's House, by Elizabeth McCracken, or The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism. . . . With a showman's expert timing, [Gruen] saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale."—The New York Times Book Review

Robert Olen Butler
"The circus, the Great Depression, a complex elephant, equally complex love, the mists and twists of memory articulated in the utterly winning voice of a very old man who's seen it all: these are the irresistible elements of Water for Elephants. Sara Gruen has written an utterly transporting novel richly full of the stuff of life."
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
From the Publisher

“Gorgeous, brilliant, and superbly plotted, Water for Elephants swept me into the world of the circus during the Depression, and it did not let me go until the very end. I don’t think it has let me go, even now. Sara Gruen has a voice to rival John Irving’s, and I am hopelessly, unabashedly in love with this book. Read it.”
—Joshilyn Jackson, author of Gods in Alabama

“So much more than a tale about a circus, Water for Elephants is a compelling journey not only under the big top, but into the protagonist’s heart.
Sara Gruen uses her talent as a writer to bring that world alive for the reader: I could smell it, taste it, feel every word of it. This is a fiction reader’s dream come true.”

—Jeanne Ray, author of Julie and Romeo Get Lucky

“In this thrilling, romantic story set in a traveling circus in the 1930s, Sara
Gruen has a big top’s worth of vivid characters and an exhilarating narrative that kept me up all night. From the perseverance of a terrier named
Queenie to the charm of Rosie the elephant, this masterpiece of storytelling is a book about what animals can teach people about love.”

—Susan Cheever, author of My Name Is Bill

Susan Cheever
"In this thrilling, romantic story set in a traveling circus in the 1930s, Sara Gruen has a big top's worth of vivid characters and an exhilarating narrative that kept me up all night. From the perseverance of a terrier named Queenie to the charm of Rosie the elephant, this masterpiece of storytelling is a book about what animals can teach people about love."
author of My Name is Bill

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