Friday, September 23, 2016


Sara Gruen
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Ms. Hen came to acquire this novel by a twist of fate. She was at one of her local bookstores, and saw the book, and remembered it, and thought she would like to read it, but didn’t buy it that day. The next day, one of her hen friends was giving out books, and WATER FOR ELEPHANTS was one of them, so she scooped it up.

Ms. Hen loves novels about circuses and carnivals. She used to dream of running away to join the circus to be a clown, but she knew that was a silly fantasy. She would never make it on the road, sleeping in a train, living a reckless life. But the protagonist of this novel did exactly that.

Jacob Jankowski finds himself in the circus train of The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth after he couldn’t take his final exams for veterinarian school because his parents die suddenly. He thought he would take over the family practice, but he didn’t know his father had been taking food as payment for years, since nobody had any money. The year is 1931.

Jacob jumps on the circus train, and gets swept away by the happenings. He is hired as a roustabout, a man who raises the tent, and keeps the crowd in line. But when Uncle Al discovers he is a Cornell educated veterinarian, he is hired for that job. He takes care of horses, and giraffes, and the show acquires what Uncle Al always wanted, an elephant from a failed circus which the Benzini Brothers show chased to pick up the remnants. Rosie, the elephant, is expensive; as is her travelling car, and both take almost all the show’s money.

Jacob’s boss is August, is a mean-spirited person who hurts the animals, or berates and beats up his employees. Jacob slowly falls in love with Marlena, August’s wife, which causes problems for Jacob. He wants to believe that August is a good person, but eventually he comes to see that August is dangerous.

Walter, the dwarf clown, shares a sleeping car with Jacob and the horses. At first Walter hates Jacob, but they become good friends when Jacob gives Walter a remedy for helping the dog, Queenie, Walter’s constant companion. The working men are also Jacob's friends.

August and Jacob believe Rosie is stupid, and can’t be trained, until they discover how she can be trained. When she performs her show, she is magnificent, the crowd loves her, and they can’t get enough. The show doesn’t last, because August is mentally and emotionally unstable.

There are a smattering of hens in this novel, and Ms. Hen was pleased. At the beginning, when Jacob’s parents die, he finds out how his father has been getting paid for his practice, “’Beans and eggs?’ my voice cracked in disbelief. ’Beans and eggs?’ ‘And chickens. And other goods.’” This is important to the story because chickens and beans are not an inheritance, and as a result, Jacob Jankowski joins the circus. Another time a hen is mentioned is during the time the men were paying to see the amazing act where only men were allowed, and a man goes to pay, and his wife pulls him back, “As he struts off to hand over his quarter, someone clucks like a hen.” Ms. Hen thought this was funny, even though she knows the men are insulting women.

Ms. Hen has read other novels about circuses and carnivals. Her favorite is GEEK LOVE, which she will be reading again soon.  She has also read SWAMPLANDIA! which she did not like as much as GEEK LOVE because she was hoping it would be just as magical and beautiful, but it turned out to be creepy and perverse, and it left Ms. Hen with a bad taste in her mouth. Stay tuned for a review of GEEK LOVE from Ms. Hen soon.

Ms. Hen loved WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. It is a beautiful story about a man and his journey into the circus and also the end of his life. The novel is about yearning and the dream of love. Jacob loved his parents, he loves animals, he loves Marlena, and he loves life. This novel is sweet the way pink cotton candy at the circus is sweet, a flavor unlike any other.

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