Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Review: Water for Elephants
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Reasons for reading: lots of people I know loved it; Historical Fiction for Triple 8 Challenge; Alex Award-winner for the Book Awards Challenge
Description: "Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell. Jacob was there because his luck had run out—orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive "ship of fools." It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act—in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival."
My thoughts: At first I wasn't 100% sold on this book, I wasn't sure I liked the alternating past and future chapters and I'm not really a circus person. But it came together at the end thanks to some literary sleight of hand from the beginning and the actual ending itself. That sent it right up to 4 stars and I could see why my friends enjoyed it so much.
Gruen clearly really researched circus life and I was really pleased to discover in her author's note that some of the incidents were inspired by real circus elephants. I loved her opening quote from Horton Hears a Who, "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant...an elephant's faithful - one hundred percent!" Rosie the elephant is as much a character as any of the human beings. The old photos at the beginning of each chapter were a nice touch. The brutality of circus life was quite shocking in some parts and the reality of life during the Depression came across clearly.
I thought she did a good job of writing from an elderly man's point of view and there were some really sad but well-done moments that demonstrated what it's like to get old, particularly that you still feel like yourself, but your body has changed almost beyond recognition and people don't treat you like an adult any more.
An interesting book with a great ending, and an elephant!