Water for Elephants: A Novel

Water for Elephants: A Novel

by Sara Gruen
Water for Elephants: A Novel

Water for Elephants: A Novel

by Sara Gruen

Paperback(Reprint)

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Overview

Over 10 million copies sold worldwide * Soon to be a Broadway Musical in 2024
#1 New York Times Bestseller * A Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal,  USA Today Bestseller
A Major Motion Picture starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz

"This colorful headlong tale of a Depression-era circus simply can't be beat." Stephen King

Jacob Janowski’s luck had run out—orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was the Great Depression and for Jacob the circus was both his salvation and a living hell. There he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but brutal animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this group of misfits was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565125605
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 05/01/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 20,083
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)
Lexile: 730L (what's this?)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Sara Gruen is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of At the Water’s Edge,Water for Elephants, Ape House, Riding Lessons, and Flying Changes. Her works have been translated into forty-three languages and have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Water for Elephants was adapted into a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon, Rob Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz in 2011. She lives in western North Carolina with her husband and three sons, along with their dogs, cats, horses, birds, and the world’s fussiest goat.

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.

What People are Saying About This

“So much more than a tale about a circus, Water for Elephants is a compellingjourney 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 thereader: I could smell it, taste it, feel every word of it. This is a fiction reader’sdream come true.”
—Jeanne Ray, author of Julie and Romeo Get Lucky

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

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

Interviews

Inside Circus World

The idea for this book came unexpectedly. I was a day away from starting a different novel when the Chicago Tribune ran an article on a photographer who followed and documented train circuses during the 1920s and 1930s.

The photograph that accompanied the article was stunning -- a detailed panoramic that so fascinated me I immediately bought two books of old-time circus photographs. By the time I thumbed through them, I was hooked. I abandoned my other novel and dove into the world of the train circus.

I began by getting a bibliography from the archivist at Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Most of the books were out of print, but I managed to track them down online and through rare-book sellers. Within weeks I was off to Sarasota, Florida, to visit the Ringling Circus Museum. I spent three days crawling under circus wagons, peering inside the trunks stored beneath them, and taking flash pictures to reveal the mysteries stashed in unlit corners.

By the end of the first day, I was being shadowed. By the end of the third, an employee approached me and asked what on earth I thought I was doing. When I told her of my desire to write a novel set on a circus train, her eyes lit up and she walked me through the entire museum, regaling me with a rich oral history that was far more vivid than the information on the posted placards, and that answered many of the questions I had scribbled in my notebook.

The museum was selling duplicates of books in its collection, so I came home poorer by several hundred dollars. Yet the more I read, the more aware I became of just how much I still had to learn. Train circuses operated in a distinct culture that had its own language, its own traditions, and its own laws. I also realized that there is a huge subculture of circus fans who would know if I got something wrong.

I spent almost a year doing research, including hauling my family to every circus within driving distance. I returned to Sarasota and brought home more books. I went to Circus World, where I was taken into the elephant enclosure and introduced to a beautiful fifty-three-year-old Asian elephant named Barbara. I stood by her ten-foot high shoulder, literally trembling as I reached out to touch her. And finally, because I wanted to learn about elephant body language, I went to the Kansas City Zoo with a former elephant handler.

When it was time to start writing, my head was so full of details I couldn't stand external stimulus. I asked my husband to move my desk into our walk-in closet, covered the window, and wore noise-reduction headphones. I spent much of the winter in that closet, weaving together the things I had learned.

The history of the American circus is so rich that I plucked many of the novel's most outrageous details from fact or anecdote (in circus history, the line between the two is famously blurred). Among them are stories about a hippo pickled in formaldehyde, a deceased four-hundred-pound "strong lady" who was paraded around town in an elephant cage, an elephant who repeatedly pulled up her stake and drank the lemonade intended for sale on the midway, another elephant who ran off and was retrieved from a backyard vegetable patch, and an ancient lion who got wedged beneath a sink along with a restaurant employee, rendering both of them too terrified to move. I also incorporated the horrific and very real tragedy of Jamaica ginger paralysis, a neurological disease caused by the consumption of adulterated ginger extract that devastated the lives of approximately 100,000 Americans between 1930 and 1931 and which is virtually forgotten today because most of its victims lived on the fringes of society.

None of the characters in the novel is based on any one real person; rather, they are a distillation of the many memorable performers and circus workers I encountered during the course of my research. And then there is Rosie, the elephant at the center of the novel; she became as real to me as any living pachyderm could ever be.

I knew from the beginning that I had embarked on an adventure with this book, but I didn't know the extent until the day I found myself cold-calling a man who owns a sideshow and keeps human heads in his house. And really, how often can you greet your spouse with the words, "So I was talking with a retired clown today…"?

I went through a period of mourning when the book was finished, and it took me a while to figure out why. Eventually I realized it was because I no longer had an elephant in my life.

I miss her.

--Sara Gruen

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