My book club met last night to discuss Water for Elephants. There were probably 12 or 14 people there, and everyone liked the book. Of course, this is a rare occurrence and doesn't make for the best discussions. It's always better when at least somebody hated the book. However, we had a good time, and everyone discussed what they liked best about the book.
Jacob Jankowski recounts his early years traveling with a circus during the Depression as he lives out his last days in a nursing home. Jacob is now 90 or 93 -- he can't really remember. His days consist mostly of waiting. He waits for his meals, which he hates. He dreams of having real food again instead of the bland mush he's served on a daily basis. He waits for his family to visit, which they do every Sunday. It seems as if that's all he has left. But his mind is sharp, and the memories of his days with the circus come flooding back when a big top goes up within sight of the nursing home. The rest of the story is told in flashbacks. Sometimes this technique can be distracting or confusing, but that's not the case with this book. In fact, the shifts in perspective help to deepen the character.
When we first meet Jacob as a young man, he's preparing for graduation from the vet school at Cornell and planning to join his father's veterinary practice. Just as life seems to be falling into place for Jacob, tragedy strikes. His parents are both killed in a car wreck. Things only get worse when he discovers that his father has heavily mortgaged the family home and business to pay for his education. Due to the terrible economy, his father has gotten behind on the payments because people haven't been able to pay him for his veterinary services. Sadly, Jacob realizes he has nothing -- no family, no job, and no home. Jacob attempts to return to school to finish his final exams but simply can't do it. In his despair and confusion, he literally jumps a train one night and ends up staying with the circus.
The descriptions of circus life are fascinating. It was a hard life, especially during the years of the Great Depression. There was often no money to pay the workers, but they had little recourse because there were no jobs to be had anywhere else. There was also a caste system within the circus with the performers at the top and the workers at the bottom. They kept themselves separate when they ate and when they traveled. The workers were crammed into railroad cars while the performers had state rooms and all the amenities. There was also no shortage of cruelty. If someone got too old or too sick to perform his job, he was simply thrown off the train. If he was lucky, the train was stopped when he was 'redlighted'. If not, he was tossed while the train was at full speed.
The book is very well-written, and it's clear that Gruen did her research. I only had a couple small qualms with the book, but they really didn't take away from my enjoyment at all. After finishing the book, I had to go back and reread the prologue to figure out if I had missed something because of the way the climax takes place. I really can't say much else without giving it away. But, if you read it, you'll know what I'm talking about. The ending is also a little unrealistic. However, even with that, I highly recommend this book.