To join the circus
by Keith Taylor
Do kids still dream about running away to join the circus? Is that still an option, at least in imagination? Forty years ago it still seemed to be one of my choices. The circus was going to be a real one, too, with clowns and freaks and elephants, not some parking-lot carnival with squeaky Ferris wheels. But even then it must have existed only in my imagination. The great day of the train circuses the ones that packed up and moved from town to town, coming and going like some glorious half-
remembered dream was already long gone.
Sara Gruen has found a way to make the fantasy almost real. Her new novel, Water for Elephants, is a loving, ambitious, playful re-creation of an early-1930s whistle-stop circus. It certainly has its share of intrigue, of love and death and terror, of the tragic and the seedy, but mostly it is a hymn of celebration to a vanished way of life. For as much as I know, she may have a few details wrong, but I certainly don't care. She has done her research, and she has created a world I've only fantasized about. Although she tells a good story about interesting people that keeps her readers turning the pages, just about everything including plot and character can be sacrificed to the setting that has so captivated her imagination.
Her protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, is an almost-graduated student of veterinary medicine at Cornell when his life falls apart in 1931. His parents die, and he discovers that the family has no money. He staggers away from school without finishing his final exams. And dumb luck takes him to the Benzini Brothers' Most Spectacular Show on Earth. There he finds a brilliant dwarf clown who reads Shakespeare and under-the-counter dime-store pornography, an old roustabout who has permanently damaged himself drinking illegal alcohol, a venal circus owner willing to break any law to help him equal
the Ringling Brothers, a paranoid schizophrenic animal trainer, and the trainer's beautiful wife, the delicate Marlena, who leads a dozen horses without whips or harness, and who can flip from the back of an elephant as delicately as a leaf drifts down from a tree. And then there is the elephant, Rosie, who understands commands only in Polish, and who is obviously the apple of her author's eye. Gruen juggles her characters as if she were an act in the center ring, keeping everything in the air but always remembering that the stage is the most important thing.
Water for Elephants jumps between the story of 1931 and the memory that plays out in Jacob's mind many years later, when he is ninety-three and alone in a nursing home. His grandchildren have mostly forgotten him, and he can't keep them straight anyway. Sara Gruen finds a way of joining the old man's memory to the long-lost events to make what may be the perfect summer read smart, historically informed, filled with love of people and animals, and ultimately a very moving novel.
Sara Gruen reads from Water for Elephants at Nicola's Books on Wednesday, June 7.
[Review published June 2006]