Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
The circus came to town and excitement was in the air in many small towns across America. It was the 1930’s in Jacob’s memory. Even when Jacob was living in a home for the aged in his nineties, the circus was still traveling to a town nearby. That year was no exception. He remembered vividly how he had been a part of the circus. The other retirement home residents were excited too, remembering from their childhood days. For Jacob, it was different. He was really there.
When the Great Depression had struck and then suddenly his parents died in a car accident, his class days as a veterinary medical student were over. There was no money to pay for his expenses and he needed to find work just to survive. He was now flat broke. He joined the hobos on a freight train and headed out of town. He didn’t know where he would end up. Well dressed but penniless, he soon discovered that he was on a circus train.
The train was part of the Benzini Brothers circus. They were known as the Most Spectacular Show on Earth if only by their own estimation. He was able to get hired on for a menial job until it became known that he was just shy of his degree in veterinary science. Suddenly, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. While there, he saw this most beautiful girl on a horse and was taken in by her. Marlena was an equestrian circus star but was married to the animal trainer. Jacob Jankowski is invited to join Marlena and her husband August for dinner in their private railway car. There is nothing that would have stopped him. He was excited to go and had a fine time.
The circus lifestyle was exciting to a twenty three year old in the company of a pretty circus star and an interesting trainer. They were the privileged set with the circus and had the best food and drink available just like the owners had. Jacob was now in good company. His budding romantic relationship with Marlena was done quietly and August didn’t seem to suspect their interest.
Uncle Al, who owns the circus, doesn’t always run the business well. He does some cruel things to keep the circus solvent. Occasionally, he would have some workers thrown off the train at night. He’d feed his dead animals to the lions. Sometimes he wouldn’t pay his workers. When other circuses went out of business, he would buy parts of their operations for little money and then not have enough for his regular payroll. He did pick up some interesting additions. One purchase brought a huge elephant named Rosie to the menagerie. Al was delighted that now he not only had a vet with a Cornell education but his own elephant too.
Rosie was a smart animal but stubborn. The animal trainer was mean to the elephant but Jacob could get her to do a lot with his kindness. Marlena was also good with animals and recognized the abuse her husband was giving Rosie. August became suspicious one day of their relationship and beats up Jacob and abuses Marlena. Then she leaves him and goes to live in a hotel when she is not performing. Al tells Jacob that Malena and her husband need to get back together for the sake of the circus’s survival and he was holding Jacob responsible. He told Jacob that if they didn’t reunite, he would throw his roommate Walter off the train as well as Camel, another friend. They would be red lighted.
Jacob continues to visit her in her hotel room and it wasn’t long before they were sleeping together. They then declare their love for one another. When Marlena returns to perform her act, she refuses to let August near her. Al is disappointed and becomes angry. He needs them to get back together. His circus depends on it.
One night, Jacob carried a knife between his teeth and jumped on top of the train. He was going to go along the top of the moving train to Augusts’ train and then try to kill him. Jacob couldn’t go through with it. He returned to his train and discovered that his friend and roommate had been red lighted. Probably he would have been thrown off, too if he had been home when the men came to do the dirty deed.
When the story is nearly over, some of the “red lighted” circus hands come back. They are now seeking revenge upon the owner. They release the animals and cause a stampede during a live performance. There is panic in the aisles; August is killed by Rosie the elephant. August split his head when the stake was pulled out of the ground. Jacob witnesses the incident and can’t save August. Uncle Al is also found dead. The circus is then shutdown.
Marlena and Jacob leave, taking Rosie and some of the other animals with them. They begin their life together. Jacob and Marlena married and had 5 children. Seven years were at the Ringling Bros. circus and then Jacob got a job as a vet for the Chicago zoo.
At the end of the story, Jacob is at the retirement home, waiting for his family to pick him up and take him to the circus. He finds out no one is coming for him after all. He can’t go to the circus. Then, Jacob goes to the circus, on his own. He meets Charlie the circus manager and asks if he can help by selling tickets. Charlie agrees to even let him come with the circus if he wants. Jacob accepts the offer and believes he has finally come home.