I could only have been three years old, because the movie “Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with the Circus” came out in 1960, when I was just a sprout. All I remember is an emotional rationale for leaving one’s foster parents behind, and acquiring a new friend in the form of a chimp, which of course in pre-chimp violence in the media days, we all longed to do. I mean, who wouldn’t want to run away and join the circus and have a monkey for a pal? The rest of the movie is very, very dim in my recollection, except I imagine from the aura it left in my mind, that there was a happy ending. For anyone interested in finding out, however, there is a copy available still on Amazon, for rent or purchase.
Now, monkeys are one thing, elephants are another: firstly, monkeys are of a manageable size (as were all the monkeys in the movies in the old days, the ones kids made friends with, and leaving King Kong out of account); they are natural mimics, and show us a part of ourselves we rarely see except in mimicry. But elephants? They are large and ungainly and however noble and intelligent are just plain too big to wrap their limbs around one’s neck in affection. But that doesn’t mean, as Sara Gruen would have us know, that they don’t feel and retain memories and affection, and also remember grudges. And there is, after all, that versatile trunk. It’s not only that an elephant never forgets, to quote the old saw, but as Gruen quotes from Dr. Seuss’s work Horton Hatches the Egg, “An elephant’s faithful–one hundred per cent!” And in her novel about the circus, circus folk, and circus animals and their correct treatment, Water for Elephants, she illustrates not only elephants and other animals showing qualities which only people are sometimes believed to have, but also shows the downside of some members of the human race, who are, in the phrase which unfairly characterizes our cohabitants on this planet, “acting like animals.”
The story is told from the perspective of one Jacob Jankowski, who in the present of the novel is a resident in an assisted living home where too much assistance is sometimes given and too little real living is going on, at least in his own view. In alternate chapters, he relives his past in memory, first as a veterinary student then as an only partially qualified vet for animals in a circus he joins when his parents die and unintentionally leave him penniless and homeless. And in many ways, he is leaping out of the frying pan into the fire. For example, he is among a group of heavy drinking people during Prohibition, many of whom drink chemically dangerous alcohol derivatives; he is under the supervision of an occasionally crazed equestrian director and a circus manager who cares only for the main chance to make a buck; finally, while it takes him a while to keep from alienating a number of roustabouts and performers alike on the circus train, he finds himself falling in love with the paranoid schizophrenic equestrian director’s wife, and playing a role to hide his feelings in order to protect the two of them from retribution.
Little by little, Jacob’s fortunes go first up and then down in the circus past as he remembers it, partially in keeping with the fortunes of the rather lately acquired elephant, Rosie, who turns out to be much more “human” than some of her keepers. And then, he enters a period of relative good luck. I really refuse to issue the standard spoiler alert and spoil the surprises waiting for the reader at the end of the novel. Suffice it to say that Jacob’s experience on the circus train serves him well both in his past, his present, and in what we are led to believe will be his future, and in order to appreciate Sara Gruen’s fine work, which came about in spite of the fact that she had no early experience of the circus, growing up in northern Ontario and only doing her research as an adult, the reader will have to read the quite suspenseful and exciting book. By the by, the book contains an excellent interview with Gruen, who is a pet lover and owner with her husband and family of various pets, as well as a question section which provides topics for group discussion. All in all, the book is well worth the asking price of $13.95 which is on the cover, though I am sorry to report that my copy was a library discard, which usually makes me happy because I get them for free that way. Still, I can always hope that the reason it was discarded isn’t because the library judged it no longer of literary value, but because they had acquired a non-water-damaged copy to replace the somewhat warped paperback version I now have. For certainly, this book is an adventure full of both the excitement any of us may feel at seeing a circus or carnival, revisiting our own childhoods, and provocative adult issues of love, kindness, and humanity that need to be explored by us in our mature lives.