There are certain books, where once you start reading, it consumes your mind and it’s hard to get anything else done (like housework, writing, work…all that sort of stuff.) “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen (Algonquin Paperbacks) is one of those books.
This novel follows ninety-three-(or ninety-one)-year-old Jacob Jankowski in an assisted-living community as he remembers his life at age twenty three. He was a veterinary student when tragedy strikes and turns his world on its head. He ends up on the rails with a travelling circus in 1931 and his story takes the reader through the dark, troubling secrets of the times.
“Water for Elephants” is not inspirational fiction, but inspiring all the same. I found this a gripping and poignant story of love and hope. In the worst of times and in the worst of company, the hero of the story overcomes and fights for what he believes in.
Gruen is a masterful writer whose research is something historical writers must strive for. The dialogue, descriptions and details transport you the very railroad cars, sitting beside a cripple, dwarf and Jacob. There are exotic animals, murder, intrigue, sideshows and men mad as hatters. Each page draws you deeper into this character and the point of view alternates from Jacob as the old man in the home to the young man in the midst of the depression.
The animals themselves become characters you root for and care for. An elephant named Rosie, who the author claims is a hybrid of two actual circus elephants she researched, becomes the true heroine. There is even a little yappy dog you eventually love.
Be warned, there are intimate scenes and language, but the message and thread of this story is well worth the darker moments. The book has layers of Jacob’s story from Genesis and with the story of the elder Jacob Jankowski, we see a whole other side to the character, one aged and wiser over time. Gruen has wonderful, flawed characters whose missteps will make you wince and cry alongside them.
I cannot rave enough about this book. For readers of all interests, this is true gold.