It has come to my attention that I don’t put spoiler alerts on these, so *SPOILER ALERT!* THERE WILL BE ALL THE SPOILERS.
At the beginning of Water for Elephants, we are introduced to the main character, Jacob Jankowski, who is living a very sad, boring life in a nursing home. However, up until that point he has had quite an amazing life. When he was younger (Great Depression era), he was studying to be a veterinarian at Cornell, but drops out after finding that his parents have been killed in a car accident. He takes off and hops a train, which happens to belong to Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth! (Ringling Brothers, anyone? Kind of ironic, since they announced this week that they are shutting down after nearly 15o years.) Anyway, while on the train, Jake makes friends with Camel, who finds work for Jake to do so he won’t be violently thrown off the moving train. Apparently this is called “red lighting.” I looked into this to see if it was a real thing that circuses used to do, but I couldn’t find any conclusive evidence one way or another. Still though, it’s quite something to think about.
Jake makes many new friends (and enemies) in his new circus home, including Walter, who had dwarfism. It’s been a long time since I read the book, but I remember really liking Walter. He’s got a little dog named Queenie. But everyone else in the circus calls him Kinko and is in general really demeaning to him because of his size! It’s terrible! Yeah yeah, don’t give me that “different time, different attitude” crap. Being crappy to someone is still being crappy to someone, no matter what time period you live in. If I remember correctly, Walter’s mom sold him to the circus. Which is absolutely disgusting, but actually this was common practice back in the day for disabled children. WHICH IS SO DISGUSTING. I recommend taking a look at Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Freakery, which explores a lot of these stories from a historically accurate standpoint.
Meanwhile, August the horse guy who abuses his animals has acquired a new elephant for his show and of course, abuses the elephant too. Jake thinks he’s gross, but forms a friendship with August’s wife, Marlena, who is kind and sweet. So of course, Jake and Marlena start a romantic relationship, which unfortunately has a lot of negative consequences. I will try not to make this post too spoilery and leave it at that.
The ending is super good, though. One of the most satisfying endings ever. Pick it up, you won’t regret it.
After reflecting on this book, I would strongly recommend it as a companion novel to Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, which we covered last semester. It’s got that whole “circus/freak show” vibe going on which I find incredibly interesting as much as I find it deplorable.
Also, it’s been turned into a pretty good film adaptation with Rob Pattinson as Jake and Reese Witherspoon as Marlena. As most film adaptations, it doesn’t follow the book spot on, but it’s a pretty good attempt.