Water for Elephants

Written by Sara Gruen
Review by Patrika Salmon


“’Gritty” is the word on the cover, but “nasty,” perhaps, is nearer the mark. Jacob Jankowski knew some nasty characters back in 1931. Today, Jacob Jankowski is an angry old man in the old folks’ home, not because his wits are wandering but because he fell and broke his hip, and it is slow to heal. He is stuck among the senile, toothless and decrepit when all he wants is his home, real food he can sink his real teeth into, and his wife alive to talk to. Jacob is 90 – or is it 93? He can’t remember that, but he does remember his circus days. In between spats with residents and the medical staff, Jacob tells his story.

Back in 1931, just before his final examinations at Cornell University’s School of Veterinary Science, Jacob’s parents were killed. The bank then foreclosed, taking his home and all the family’s possessions. Stunned, in a daze, he just walked away and jumped onto a wagon of the first passing train. It was the Benzini Bros. Circus train, and here Jacob meets those nasty characters, the love of his life, and Rosie the elephant. He manages to grow up, too, but only just. Those characters are the circus owner and ringmaster, and Jacob falls foul of them both. How he manages to save himself, the elephant, and marry the lovely Marlena makes for an exciting read.

A lot of research went into the writing of Water for Elephants. The book is illustrated with original photographs from the circus world of the 1930s, which add to the enjoyment and reality of an incredible story. Personally, I found the ending a little pat. I can see Hollywood leaping to make a film from such a visual and unusual story, turning the ending into a real tearjerker.