The biggest question I’m left with after reading Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants isn’t about actual circus history or the path of true love. It’s, “How can people be so cruel to animals?” I used to enjoy circuses, when I was young. But then I learned about the conditions the animals are kept in, and how they’re abused during training and performances. I know not all circuses are like this, but even greats like the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus has been repeatedly fined for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. So while a lot of the attention given to this book was on the human characters, most of my sympathy and worry were for the animals in the fictitious Benzini Brothers Circus.
The novel flips back and forth in time as Jacob Jankowski remembers his summer with the Benzini Circus and endures his present in a nursing home. We meet Jacob when he’s 90 (or 93, he’s not sure which) and getting fed up with being treated like a child by the nursing home staff. His mind constantly drifts back to the summer his parents died and he ended up working as a veterinarian for the circus. Soon after he gets the job, he meets the star performers: Marlena the horseback rider and her husband, the dangerous and mercurial August, chief animal wrangler. Most of the cruelty I mentioned before comes from him. If things don’t go his way, August responds with shocking violence.
The best parts of this book were when Gruen showed off her knowledge of American circus history. It was a joy for my trivia obsessed brain to learn about circus cant and the devious ways of circus directors and to see (through the text) the different acts. I can see why people flock to circuses (provided you don’t know what’s happening back stage). The Benzini Brothers show seems more dodgy than any other. Since it’s the summer of 1931, the workers and performers are stuck with the show even though they don’t get paid and sometimes go hungry.
Jacob learns to get by, mostly by laying low when the circus owner, Uncle Al, and August are in their moods. For a while, a lot of the other workers also seem to hate Jacob’s guts, at least until they work out that he’s pretty much a decent guy. A lot of the book flies by as the circus moves from town to town and Gruen maneuvers her characters into an all-hell-breaks-loose situation. It’s pretty spectacular to see, and more than a little satisfying when you get to it.
You just know that Jacob and Marlena have to fall in love, and they do. And I rooted for Jacob in that respect. But I was frustrated with Jacob when it came to his care of the animals in the circus. For someone who professed to love animals, why did he let August beat and torment them? Jacob repeatedly castigates himself for failing his charges. So why doesn’t he actually do something about it? He’s willing to fight August when August threatens Marlena with violence. But Rosie the elephant suffers worse than Marlena does, and Jacob doesn’t lift a finger.
So I’m pretty torn about how I feel about this book. I really, really hate to see animal cruelty. That bothered me so much that I had a hard time really liking Jacob. That Gruen showed Jacob to us as a crochety old man didn’t really help either. The only thing that helped me along was the prologue. I wasn’t sure that Gruen made a wise decision by revealing so much before you even get to the main story. But by the time Rosie the elephant joins the show, I understood why we had to see that peak at the end of the story. If I hadn’t been reading the book on my iPad, I might have actually chucked it across the room in anger.