Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Water for Elephants

by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants tells the story of Jacob Jankowski and his encounter with a circus train during the height of the Great Depression. The novel is a vivid and intensively researched account of the times and of this unique world of clowns, rogues, and heroes.

Combining excitement and tawdriness, tragedy and comedy, the narrative focuses on the accidental hero, Jacob, who stumbles upon the circus train after a family tragedy and remains to make the circus his life and love.

The story is beautifully wrought, passing between the present, where a ninetysomething Jacob is suffering the indignities of old age, and the past, where we follow Jacob through his rather inglorious beginnings as a veterinarian with the circus.

Gruen, who was born in Vancouver and attended the University of Ottawa, but now lives in a “conservation community” outside of Chicago, provides detailed and empathetic character descriptions that are at all times believable and riveting. Her depiction of the era and the milieu rings with authenticity. An added bonus are the photographs, culled from Gruen’s research, of actual circus trains of the era, displaying the intriguing real-life characters that peopled them.

Water for Elephants is a heartfelt, entertaining, and poignant story of a bygone era and of a world that represents the full experience of the human condition, from the bleakest sadness to the most riotous humour, from intolerable cruelty to unconditional kindness.