Sara Gruen mines fertile territory in Water for Elephants: the chronic miseries of advancing old age and the terrible years of the Great Depression, when people wandered the country in search of work, their homes and failed business left behind.
As the novel begins, Jacob Jankowski is an old man in an assisted living home, his memories sparked by a nearby visiting circus and a creeping helplessness that assaults his aging body: “Age is a terrible thief. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back.”
As he falls into fitful dreams, the past emerges. Stripped of everything after his parents’ untimely death, the twenty-three-year-old fails to sit for his veterinary exams at Cornell, grief-stricken and robbed of home and future, the country bartering in goods instead of money.
Hopping a circus train in the dead of night that by belongs to The Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, Jacob hires on to care for the show’s menagerie, his advanced training in veterinary medicine a ticket into this bizarre world. Uncle Al, Benzini Brothers circus owner-by-default, is a ruthless businessman who cares only for his reputation, engaged in a quest for fame to rival the great Ringling Brothers.
Star performer Marlena, an equestrienne, adores her animals and is quick to notice Jacob but circumspect in her actions. Her mercurial husband, the trainer August, is obsessively jealous and given to unspeakable cruelties toward man and beast. Jacob does his best to protect the animals from their harsh existence, especially Rosie, an elephant purchased to replace Marlena’s lead horse.
Jacob is increasingly attached to Rosie, empathizing with her plight at August’s hands and helpless to change the situation. Because of his growing affection for Marlena, Jacob suffers August’s increasing affronts, caught in a cycle of inevitable violence, certain of a reckoning.
Related in the somber tones of the Depression, the novel addresses the hardscrabble and often unscrupulous practices of a traveling circus, the rowdy carnie atmosphere and the antiseptic corridors of the assisted living home, all viewed through Jacob’s perspective, as he rages helplessly against the decrepitude of old age and the secrets of the past: “In seventy years, I never told a blessed soul.”
In prose both poignant and infinitely tender, Jacob dwells in both worlds, revealing the wounds of the past and the sorrows of the present. In a devastating denouement, as inescapable as the indifferent world that turns a blind eye to the vagrants of the ‘30s, Jacob’s spirit retains the essence of his kind nature, a man who cannot be broken by circumstances. All is redeemed in a coup de grace that will leave the reader richer for having met this raggedy tribe of miscreants and lost souls.