It is always a worry when one of your favourite books is made into a film and so I have yet to see ‘Water For Elephants’ on the big screen for fear that it will not live up to the joy of the novel.
Sara Gruen’s writing and her Technicolor story and characters are certainly worth enjoying on the page before you see the celluloid version.
Enter a world of sideshows, ringmasters, elephants and the Great Depression and you will undoubtedly warm to the main character, Jacob Jankowski.
Jacob’s story moves between the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth and his days as an elderly man in a nursing home, the latter adding a richness and poignancy to the book.
Gruen’s account is entirely credible because it was meticulously researched, many details being factual or coming from circus workers’ anecdotes, including the story of an elephant given to pulling out her stake and stealing lemonade.
Jacob Jankowski, in his nineties, hates being forced into a nursing home after breaking his hip and his one solace, that he is a rarity among the many old ladies, is destroyed by a new inmate who Jacob believes lies about a former life in the circus bringing water to the elephants. He may be lying but Jacob can clearly remember his own circus days.
These memories begin when Jacob is a 23 year old preparing for his final exams as a veterinary student when his parents are killed, leaving debts which see Jacob destroyed and running off in the deep of the night to stow away on a circus train.
The dastardly circus owner, Uncle Al, nobody’s idea of a kind old uncle, discovering that fortuitously Jacob has been training as a vet, decides he can take care of the circus animals. Jacob shares quarters with Kinko, a dwarf whose real name is Walter, and his beloved dog Queenie.
There are tales of “red lighting”, the practice of getting rid of unwanted circus workers by simply hurling them off a moving train; of head trainer, August, a brute to animals, especially the elephant Rosie, and to humans: and of August’s wife Marlena, with whom Jacob falls in love, causing problems and choices almost impossible to make.
It is gratifying that just deserts are served in full measure by returning circus workers who were “red lighted” and by Rosie, the elephant. And especially pleasing that Jacob is finally back where he belongs.
This is a book that explores self-esteem, morality, delusions and real life dramas, which like train tracks take different directions. It is also a book not to be missed. I guarantee you’ll love it.