Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Chapel Hill    Algonquin       2006    350p.


TAGS:  2007 Alex Awards    Historical Fiction


Water for Elephants is a very engaging book set in the early 1930’s when the circus coming to town was a very big event. Not a lot of people could afford to go to the cricus because of the depression–life was tough. Life was even tougher inside the circus more like hell as Jacobmight describe it.  Sara Guen has not only researched the time period, but also has spent time with the elephants—to learn their language. Gruen gives us not only a great look into circus life, but into a life of an old man in review of his life, love and the secrets he keeps.


Jacob Jankowski, the main character is a veterinary science student who loses his parents in an accident which leaves him alone and penniless.   He decides to leave school, jumps aboard a train.  A train whose cars are filled with a group of unique, freaky and amazing circus people.  Sara Gruen, the author, brings each character to life.  Jacob proving himself useful with his veterinary background wins the spot of taking care of all the circus animals.  Marlena is the dazzling young equestrian rider who has a soft spot for Jacob.  August, is Marlena’s husband who is possessive and is the mean-spirited animal trainer for the circus.  Even the lesser characters are vivid like Kinko the performing dwarf and Rosie the elephant; who is really the star of this second-rate circus. Rosie comes to the circus and appears not to be trainable but Jacob has a keen sense that Rosie is trainable and is just refusing to perform.


During the depression it was hard to get people to come to this “lesser” circus, so often this circus entourage only stayed a night, performed and kept one stop ahead of the bill collectors.  Life was hard during the depression and circus life was downright miserable most times.  The author paints this picture well but is able to stir up a romance and a surprise ending to this delightful novel.. 


Water for Elephants has a couple of layers as the novel is told as a flashback by Jacob who is now in his 90’s and waiting at the nursing home, to see if someone will show up in time to take him to the circus that has come to town.  I think teens may have a hard time identifying with Jacob as he switches between being 90 years old and the stories he recalls from his days in the circus.  He has many secrets that he ponders as he reviews his life, life in the circus and beyond. The cover of this book has a ringmaster entering a circus tent–it is not real eye-catching.  Teens may just pass this book by based on it’s cover.


This book is a winner of the Alex Award in which adult novels that appeal to young adult readers.  Because of the strong language and somewhat graphic sexual content I would recommend this for only upper level senior high students.


5Q        3P      Grades: S        Lexile: 730

Website:  http://www.saragruen.com/home.html






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