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Of pachyderms and roustabouts . . .

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Posted: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 3:22 pm

Sometimes I feel like I'm a little bit behind the curve when it comes to reading. Not my reading skills, but my book-finding skills. Luckily I know plenty of people who are voracious readers so I'm introduced to new stuff, even if it's not particularly 'new.'

So how lucky was I to be introduced to 'Water for Elephants?' It got good reviews from two of my nearest and dearest, so I picked it up on Saturday and started reading. I didn't stop reading until I finished it (at 2:00 a.m.) - because it's that good.

A synopsis would be that it's a book about a Depression-era traveling circus. Which is true. But the author weaves a tale so intricate and deliciously twisted that it's a literal page-turner.

When the book opens, the main character, Jacob Jankowski, is an old man in a residential care home. I was immediately taken by the way the author described the intricate details of an old man's thoughts: "Age is a terrible thief. Just when you're getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse." It's especially interesting to me because while we learn about the sensitive and tender atrocities of aging for a 90-something-year-old man, the author, Sara Gruen, is a woman.

While we are entertained by how he keeps what's left of his marbles in the home, his mind wanders back to the year 1931 when his life took a drastic turn after the sudden death of his parents while he was finishing college. The young almost-Cornell graduate with dreams of becoming a veterinarian ends up hopping a train that delivers him to a completely different reality than anything he's known. Or that most of us know for that matter.

Our 23-year-old Jacob has entered the world of a traveling circus known as the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Within this world we learn about the strange and creepy people that become a family of sorts simply by virtue of their strangeness. This subculture has its own language and hierarchy that is initially intimidating to young Jacob, but he soon gets his sea legs and learns how to handle himself. He becomes the show's veterinarian, working directly under a psychotic but charming menagerie director named August. August mentors him and torments him simultaneously, and it doesn't help matters when Jacob falls in love with August's lovely wife Marlena, the equestrian acrobat. He rooms with an angry dwarf, hobnobs with the elite members of the troupe, has a strange encounter with the "cooch" show lady, trades his father's watch to help an alcoholic roustabout, and narrowly escapes a raid on a speakeasy in Chicago.

Life has its ups and downs for Jacob during his short stay with the circus. You find yourself pulling for some of the most unlikely characters in the story. Most of all you'll pull for Rosie, the lemonade-loving elephant that nobody can tame, except, of course, our Jacob.

The book moves along at an alarming rate, and the moments we spend with Old Jacob throughout the book are a welcome respite from the madness of the "kinkers," "rubes," and roustabouts. The chapters are separated by charming (and sometimes disturbing) black and white photos of circuses of the era. Gruen certainly did her research and it shows in the details of this remarkable work.

The fact that this book exposes the seedy underbelly of a basically unsavory culture did not make me a fan of circuses. But it made me a fan of Sara Gruen's work and I'll be searching for more.

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