Water for Elephants

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Water for Elephants















Water for Elephants, published in 2007, is Sara Gruen's third novel. The inspiration for the book was a Chicago Tribune article about Edward J. Kelty, a photographer who followed traveling circuses around the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Gruen was so fascinated by the images that accompanied the article she bought two volumes of old-time circus photographs. She abandoned the book she had been planning to write and immediately began researching the world of the train circus. A few years later, Water for Elephants was published.

Her story of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth was crafted using many fascinating facts and anecdotes about the history of the American circus and the Great Depression, the time during which the main action of the story is set. Part history, part romance, part murder mystery, the novel's use of authentic circus language from the period reflects the meticulous research that went into the book. Featuring fairytale elements, this glimpse of Americana is by turns dark, violent, sad, and heartbreaking, but it delivers a truly memorable happy ending. Ranked number one on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks, Water for Elephants was one of the most popular novels of 2006.


Sara Gruen was born in 1969 in Vancouver, Canada. A dual citizen of Canada and the United

States, Gruen moved to the States in 1999 for a technical writing job. She was laid off two years later and decided to try writing fiction full-time instead of looking for another job. Her debut novel, Riding Lessons was published in 2004 to wide critical and popular acclaim. Her next novel, Flying Changes continues the story of her protagonist from Riding Lessons. Published in 2005, Gruen's second novel was as well received as her first.

Gruen was inspired to write Water for Elephants in 2003 after reading an article about Edward J. Kelty, a photographer who followed traveling circuses around the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. The photo that accompanied the article so fascinated Gruen she abandoned the book she intended to write and started researching the world of the train circus. She spent the next four-and-a-half months studying her subject and in 2006 the novel was published.

The book was met with immediate popular acclaim and became a bestseller. In the New York Times Book Review, critic Elizabeth Judd writes,

Unsurprisingly, writers seem liberated by imagining a spectacle where no comparison ever seems inflated, no development impossible. For better and for worse, Gruen has fallen under the spell. With a showman's expert timing, she saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale.

Praised for its meticulous research, superb plot, richly drawn characters, and flawless pacing, Water for Elephants was nominated for a 2006 Quill Award for General Fiction, was a Book Sense number-one pick for June 2006, and won the 2007 Book Browse award for most popular book. The novel hit the New York Times bestseller list and reached number one on July 8, 2007.



Jacob is in his early nineties and lives in a nursing home. His heart lurches when he sees that a circus tent is being set up across the street. He and the nursing home's newcomer, Joseph McGuinty, get into a fight when McGuinty claims to have carried water for the elephants in the circuses of his youth. When Jacob calls him an old coot and a liar, he is taken to his room to calm down. Later Rosemary, the nurse, brings him a bowl of fruit—food that Jacob fantasizes about. He thinks about his wife of sixty-one years and how she died of cancer. He misses her but is grateful that she died first and was spared the grief of surviving his death, because, “Being the survivor stinks.”


The second chapter of Water for Elephants opens with a flashback to 1931, when Jacob is twenty-three. His parents are killed in a car accident a week before he is to graduate Cornell University with a degree in veterinary medicine. When he finds out the bank owns his parent's home, everything in it, and his father's veterinary practice, Jacob realizes all their money went to pay his Ivy League tuition. In his grief, he walks out of his final exam without taking it, walks to the edge of town, and follows the train tracks. He hops the train and finds himself in the company of four men, all employees of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.


When the train reaches its destination the next morning, Camel, one of the four men from the night before, gets Jacob a job shoveling manure from the stock cars. The circus is being set up at breakneck speed all around him. He enjoys a huge breakfast while Camel teaches him some circus rules and vernacular. Camel's friend, Cecil, the sideshow talker, hires Jacob and two other men to help him draw rubes into the sideshow. When Jacob uses force to break up a fight between Cecil and an unhappy customer, Cecil shows his gratitude by promoting the young man to bouncer of the “cooch tent.” In his third position of the day, Jacob is responsible for ensuring that everyone pays fifty cents to see Barbara strip—no peeping toms are allowed. He is also responsible for keeping order during her burlesque. The chapter closes with Jacob saying, “This is the first time I've ever seen a woman naked and I don't think I'll ever be the same.”


Jacob earns a dollar for his work at the cooch tent. Camel figures him for a college boy and tells him to go back to his life if he's got a life to go back to. Jacob says he doesn't and ends up spending the night in a sleeper car, crammed under another man's bunk. He is introduced to Uncle Al and August and says he wants to work on the circus. Uncle Al wants to throw Jacob from the train, but August, when he finds out Jacob trained to be a veterinarian at Cornell, suggests keeping him on. He takes Jacob to Kinko's car and tells the dwarf to offer the “show's new veterinarian” his cot. Instead, Jacob spends “the night on a crumpled horse blanket against the wall” as far from the cot as he can due to Kinko's cold reception. He dreams of his mother and of Barbara's breasts.


Jacob wakes from his dream crying. He is an elderly man again and living in the nursing home. He watches the circus go up and sees the other residents “being wheeled up the street by relatives.” When it is time for dinner, he demands to be sat at a table by himself. He still has not forgiven McGuinty, who now sits with the admiring ladies. Jacob grows angry when he hears that McGuinty had his ticket to the circus upgraded to a ringside seat because he told a circus employee he used to carry water for the elephants. Jacob demands “real food” and sends his dinner plate crashing to the floor when he does not get it. Dr. Rashid is summoned and it is decided that Jacob is depressed. The next day he is forced to take a new pill, Elavil, which, he is told, will help him feel better.


Twenty-three year-old Jacob wakes to find the circus already being set up. August introduces him to Marlena before he is able to examine Silver Star, “the lead horse in the liberty act.” Jacob determines that the horse is foundering, a condition that will likely keep the horse from being able to perform again. Uncle Al offers Jacob nine dollars a week to fix the horse. “Lose the horse and you're out of here,” he says. Then he announces that the circus is tearing down and moving on. This infuriates August and many circus workers threaten to quit. Everyone speculates about the reason for moving on, but Lottie, the aerialist, is the one with the most reliable information. She gives Jacob a “crash course on the history of Alan J. Bunkel and the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth” and says they are taking a detour to Joliet so Uncle Al can snap up a recently unemployed freak by the name of CharlesMansfield-Livingston, “a dapper man with a parasitic twin growing out of his chest.”

On the three day journey to Joliet, Jacob learns too late not to question August's authority. A toothless tiger attacks Jacob when August makes him feed the big cats rotten meat. After he tells Jacob to use another man's ration of water to bathe with, Jacob discovers it was Kinko's water. Kinko, who already hates him, catches Jacob going through his books before discovering he also took his water. To make matters worse, August leaves a fresh blanket, bedroll, pillow, and dinner invitation for Jacob in Kinko's quarters. Kinko, enraged, says to Jacob, “You wasted no time ingratiating yourself, did you?”


Jacob, Marlena, and August share a lovely evening together. August provides fine clothes for them to wear and they drink champagne and wine and enjoy several courses of gourmet food. Marlena explains that August and Uncle Al are delighted that Jacob has joined them, and that August “can't help his little moments.” They all get drunk and pass out. The next morning, Jacob is too hung over to help Otis rid the camel car of stinking, rotten meat. He finds Marlena with Silver Star, who has gotten worse. Jacob tells her he needs to put the horse down and goes to get a gun from August. After he shoots the horse, he feels terrible. August tries to comfort him and tells him that it doesn't matter that he is not technically a veterinarian. He explains that the rules are different on a show.


The elderly Jacob is awakened by Rosemary, the nice nurse. She reminds him that today is the day his family comes to visit and that he'll be going to the circus. He enjoys a shower and thinks about his dead wife and five children. Although he initially felt betrayed when none of them offered to take him in after their mother died, he understands that they have problems of their own. Rosemary puts cream and brown sugar on his porridge, but Jacob is so disturbed by his age and appearance he cannot eat it. Instead, he lies down, looks out the window, and is “lulled into a sort of peace.”


The circus finally arrives in Joliet. When young Jacob disembarks the train he finds the remains of the abandoned Fox Brothers Circus. While Uncle Al confers with city officials, August,Jacob, and Marlena find a diner in town and eat breakfast. When they return to camp, newly unemployed Fox Brothers employees line up for an audience with Uncle Al. The Benzini Brothers menagerie is fed and watered, but August makes Jacob wait to feed and water the Fox Brothers animals. Jacob is incensed because the animals are left to wither in the heat, but he cannot fight August. Marlena is applauded by the workingmen for giving food to a hungry unemployed Fox Brothers employee against August's wishes. Despite his own hunger, Jacob finds it impossible to eat with so many desperate people around him.

The Ringling Brothers get the “freak” Uncle Al came for, but this does not bother him. He gets an elephant named Rosie, instead. When August, Jacob, and Marlena meet Rosie, her former handler describes her as “the stupidest…animal on the face of the earth.” He gives Jacob something called a bull hook and says he is going to need it. Rosie sprays the handler with water on his way out.


August is furious with Uncle Al for purchasing Rosie. Marlena and Jacob, on the other hand, find her utterly charming. Uncle Al, in addition to spending two thousand dollars on Rosie and her elephant trailer, has hired on more people without having anywhere to put them. Jacob, along with everyone else connected with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, gets roaring drunk. Barbara and Nell attempt to seduce Jacob, but he is too drunk. He throws up on them and wakes up in a trunk wearing a red silk dressing gown and clown paint. He is not sure whether he is still a virgin or not. Kinko has given up being mad at Jacob and advises him to send Barbara flowers to make up for the vomiting incident.

Jacob finds August beating Rosie in the menagerie tent. Jacob offers to take over her training, and Rosie responds well when he puts aside the bull hook and talks to her in calming tones. August tells Jacob to go make sure Marlena doesn't go behind the menagerie. When Jacob goes to investigate what August does not want her to see, he finds Pete slaughtering horses. When Jacob finds Marlena, she is close to tears. From the window of her stateroom she watches August beating and cursing Rosie, trying to get her into the elephant car.


Jacob lies on his bedroll feeling miserable while Kinko teaches tricks to his dog Queenie. The circus is on its way to Chicago. The two men share their first civil conversation. Once in Chicago, Jacob seeks the company of the animals. He realizes he is “the only thing standing between these animals and the business practices of August and Uncle Al.” He thinks, “No matter what I did last night, I cannot leave these animals. I am their shepherd, their protector. And it's more than a duty. It's a covenant with my father.”

August invites Jacob to go out with him and Marlena that night. They dress up and go to a speakeasy where Marlena and Jacob dance together. When, due to a police raid, the club clears out, Marlena and Jacob get separated from August. Jacob kisses Marlena, she runs away, and Jacob is left to find his way back to camp. The next morning Kinko wakes Jacob for breakfast. When Jacob moves to sit with Kinko in the dining tent, Kinko realizes something is going on with him and Marlena. He advises the young vet to go sit with August and Marlena and act normal. Kinko, who now allows Jacob to call him by his real name—Walter—says, “Jacob, you listen to me. He's the meanest son of a bitch I've ever met, so whatever the hell is going on…it better stop now or you're going to find yourself dead.” August behaves as if he knows something is going on between Jacob and Marlena.


Rosie is the most popular animal at the show. She accepts candy and popcorn from the awestruck public and clearly shows signs of being a show animal. Though they have not practiced, Uncle Al forces August to put Rosie in the center ring with Marlena. She is injured during the act, though the crowd is unaware of it, and Rosie wanders off. Rosie is found in a nearby residential garden, eating her fill of the produce. One of the men sent to lure Rosie back to camp is Grzegorz Grabowski, more commonly known as Greg. He uses a bucket of gin and ginger ale to coax the elephant from the garden, a trick he picked up while working with elephants in a previous circus. Even though Rosie returns to camp peaceably, August insists on beating her for running away. Jacob hates himself for not stopping August, but feels he has no choice. He is determined to keep his job.


At the nursing home, Rosemary convinces the elderly Jacob to sit with the others during lunch. He appreciates that she treats him like a real person.


Marlena recovers and August, when he runs into Jacob, is polite but distant. Earl, a circus hand, asks Jacob to check on Camel because the old man's feet have become “floppy.” Walter tells Jacob the old man is probably suffering from “jake leg,” a paralyzing affliction that has been widely reported among moonshine drinkers, especially in the South. On payday, Jacob and a number of other workmen are told they have to wait another four weeks to get paid. Jacob learns this is customary, and that people who are owed more than four weeks of pay better stop showing up on payday lest they get “redlighted,” or thrown off the train. The doctor that comes to check on Marlena agrees to look at Camel, for the price of Jacob's father's pocket watch. The doctor seconds Walter's assessment of the old man's condition and says nothing can be done for him. To keep his friend from being thrown from the train, Jacob convinces Walter to let Camel hide out in the stock car with them. Marlena asks Jacob to come back to the stateroom with her. She tells him she has not been able to stop thinking about him since he kissed her in the alley in Chicago.


Walter finds out the name of Camel's son and tracks him down in Providence. He agrees to take custody of the old man when the circus arrives several weeks later. Lovely Lucinda, the fat lady, dies and Marlena is well enough to perform again. Jacob watches her act for the first time and falls even more deeply in love with her. He begins to feel closer to her horses, too. Jacob blows up at August over breakfast, which causes August to feel a certain amount of respect for the young man. In his search for a replacement fat lady, Uncle Al speaks to the wife of the police superintendent disrespectfully and the circus is forced to pack up and leave town immediately. In the rush to leave, Queenie is left behind. Walter is inconsolable until Marlena shows up with the dog the next day. She says that August retrieved the dog, which was found running alongside the train as it pulled out. Camel finds out that Walter and Jacob not only know about his son, but have arranged for him to take Camel in. The old man is humiliated by the thought. He says, “I can't go back! You don't know what happened. They don't want me no more.” As the temperature rises, the lemonade begins to go missing. When Uncle Al discovers that Rosie has been pulling out her stake, drinking the lemonade, and replacing her stake when she returns to the menagerie, he tells August the money is coming out of his pay. August responds by grabbing the bull hook and saying, “I'm not the only one who's going to pay for the lemonade.” Marlena tries to stop him, but she cannot. When Jacob tries, she convinces him that to do so would only make things worse.


Rosemary wakes the elderly Jacob from a dream. He was talking in his sleep about Rosie and the circus. When Rosemary asks about it, Jacob worries he may have said something embarrassing. He is terrified that his mind is going, but Rosemary tells him he is still “sharp as a tack.” He starts to cry when Rosemary tells him, “You're a fine gentleman and I'm honored to know you.”


While August beats Rosie, Marlena clings to Jacob and spills out her history. She describes her whirlwind marriage to August and makes clear her intention to stay faithful to him. Jacob takes two bottles of whiskey to Rosie and finds Greg tending to her wounds. She responds to the Polish phrases he speaks to her, which gives Jacob an idea. For the next ten days, Jacob teaches August how to speak Polish to Rosie and the elephant is trained to perform her own show. August becomes bright, convivial, and generous, and Rosie blossoms under his loving attention. Jacob's hate for August begins to abate. Before Rosie's first performance, August presents Marlena and Jacob with expensive gifts as a way of thanking them for their part in the circus's revival. The circus is packed the night of Rosie's first performance and the crowd goeswild for her. To show their appreciation, they throw coins, which makes Uncle Al cry with joy.


Marlena tells Jacob to bring Rosie to her dressing tent. She has a special party planned and wants to surprise August. Marlena and Jacob are opening a bottle of champagne when August arrives. He becomes enraged and accuses the two of them of sleeping together. He calls Marlena a whore and shoves her. This causes Jacob to tackle August and the two men get into a fistfight. Jacob is dragged away and Walter cleans his wounds. After the train has pulled out and Walter, Camel, and Jacob have settled in for the night, Marlena appears. She told August she was leaving him, and he gave her a black eye. She falls asleep against Jacob's shoulder in the horse car.


At the nursing home, the elderly Jacob dresses for the circus and waits for his family to arrive. When no one comes, Rosemary makes a few phone calls and finds out there has been a miscommunication. No one is coming to take Jacob to the circus, and Rosemary is unable to accompany him. When he tells her he does not know what he would do without her, Rosemary breaks the news that this is her last day because she is moving to be closer to her mother-in-law. Jacob asks to be left alone.


August is made to leave the stateroom so Marlena can gather her things. He begs her forgiveness, but she ignores his pleas. Jacob accompanies her to a hotel. Uncle Al tells Jacob that he needs his help getting August and Marlena back together again. When Jacob refuses, Uncle Al tells Jacob he knows about Camel stowing away in his and Walter's quarters. He explains that August is a paranoid schizophrenic. Jacob refuses to make up with August, who demands to know where Marlena is staying. Jacob runs to Marlena to protect her against August, but she is already being guarded at the hotel. He and Marlena make love and tell each other their stories.


Marlena and Jacob profess their love for one another and agree to run away together. They have to wait a few weeks, until the circus gets to Providence and Camel's son can pick him up. To stall, Jacob lets Uncle Al believe that Marlena will go back to August if given enough time. Because August is in no shape to be seen by the public after his fight with Jacob, Rosie does not perform for several shows. This infuriates the crowds and the circus is run out of town twice. They are raided by police in Poughkeepsie “and for once the social strata are bridged: working men, performers, and bosses alike weep and snizzle as all that scotch, all that wine, all that fine Canadian whiskey, all that beer, all that gin, and even moonshine is poured onto the gravel by straight-armed, sour-faced men.” August is kept away from Marlena for three weeks, then Uncle Al gets impatient. He tells Jacob, “We're going to do it my way now.” Marlena tells Jacob she may be pregnant. August beats Rosie for misbehaving during a show. When Jacob tries to stop him, he is jumped from behind and knocked out.


Jacob comes to in his and Walter's car. Walter tends to his head and tries to convince Jacob to stay put and not go after Marlena, whom Jacob believes is in danger. After Walter and Camel fall asleep, Jacob creeps across the top of the moving train with Walter's knife between his teeth. When he reaches August, who is sleeping, he decides not to kill him. He leaves the knife beside him in the bed instead, as a warning. When he arrives back at his car, he finds Walter and Camel gone. The next morning he accuses Earl of redlighting the two men. Earl is shocked to hear it, says he loved the old man, and wonders how many others got tossed off the train in the night. He warns Jacob to hit the road for his own safety. Jacob does his best to stay out of sight, but manages to talk to Marlena. They plan on leaving that day. Before the show starts, Jacob learns that Walter and Camel had indeed been redlighted and had died the previous night. Several of the other men survived and are getting together to take “Uncle Al down.” A full-fledged stampede breaks out in the menagerie and Rosie splits August's skull with her stake. In the confusion, Marlena does not realize what Rosie has done. She thinks August was killed by the stampeding animals alone.


It takes a few days for Marlena and Jacob to recover all the animals. Uncle Al is missing. On the third day, the Nesci Brothers Circus train arrives and begins haggling with city officials over the Benzini Brothers stock. Jacob calls Dean Wilkins at Cornell, who agrees to let his former student sit for his exams. Jacob convinces the city to let him keep Rosie, and Marlena talks the same officials into letting her keep all eleven of the horses. Marlena thinks she and Jacob have a good chance at being hired on by the Ringling


  • Water for Elephants was released in an unabridged version on audio cassette by High-bridge Audio on June 1, 2006. It is narrated by John Randolph Jones and David LeDoux.

Brothers, and they decide to get married as soon as August's death certificate is signed.


Disappointed that his family has forgotten him, the elderly Jacob decides to walk to the circus by himself. When he arrives, the manager, Charlie O'Brien, escorts him inside and offers to fetch him a wheelchair. When the man finds out Jacob was with the Benzini Brothers during the time of the stampede (an event that has become legendary among circus workers), he is impressed. He tells Jacob, “You're a living piece of history, and I'd surely love to hear about that…firsthand.” Jacob gets a ringside seat at the show.


After the show, Jacob is invited back to Charlie's RV. They drink single malt scotch, and Jacob tells the man about his years with the circus. When he tells Charlie what Rosie did, something he had never told anyone, he feels instantly relieved. Then he goes on and talks about his and Marlena's years with Ringling and how they left after the birth of their third child. They moved to a rural property close to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, where Jacob took a job as staff veterinarian and raised their five children and many animals. When a police officer comes looking for Jacob, Charlie lies and says Jacob is his father. After the police officer leaves, Charlie agrees to hire Jacob on as a ticket taker with the circus. Jacob says, “So what if I'm ninety-three? So what if I'm ancient and cranky and my body's a wreck? If they're willing to accept me and my guilty conscience, why the hell shouldn't I run away with the circus?”


Uncle Al

Uncle Al is the ringmaster of the circus. His real name is Alan J. Bunkel and he is described as a “buzzard, a vulture, an eater of carrion.” He acquired the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth when it collapsed in August 1928. Al “retained the name and officially joined the ranks of train circuses.” When the crash came, larger circuses started going down. Bunkel had scouts everywhere that alerted him whenever a show closed. He would appear with a “few train cars, a handful of stranded performers, a tiger, or a camel” and acquire the remains of the show. This is how he collected workers, performers, and animals. He has a special taste for “born freaks” and a tendency toward brutality. He thinks nothing of withholding pay from his workers for weeks on end and “redlighting” them—getting rid of them by tossing them from the train in the middle of the night—when they become expendable. At one point Uncle Al tells Jacob, “I look after those who look after me. I also look after those who don't.”


August's official title is Equestrian Director and Superintendent of Animals of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He is a mercurial figure who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Dashingly handsome, charming, and generous at times, he can also be terrifyingly violent, brutal, and dangerous. He beats Rosie mercilessly when she does not follow his commands, but fawns over her when she does. He eventually gets repaid for his brutality.


Barbara is the talented and big-busted stripper of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. She attempts to seduce Jacob, but he is too drunk to her.


Blackie tries to throw Jacob from the train the first night they meet. He acts as Uncle Al's main bouncer.


Camel is an old man who gets Jacob onto the circus. He is a longtime drunk and hobo who eventually becomes ill with Jamaica ginger paralysis, a debilitating condition found in people who drink Jamaica ginger extract. A gunner in World War I, he was never the same when he returned home.


Ezra's “only job is to know everyone on the show, and by God, he's good at it. When he jerks his thumb at some unfortunate, Blackie steps forward to take care of it.” He harasses Jacob on the boy's first day and tells Camel to teach him how to talk “before he gets the shit kicked out of him.”

Grzegorz Grabowski

Greg, a fellow Pole to Jacob, lures Rosie out of a garden with gin and ginger ale, a trick he learned while working with elephants on a previous circus. He also shows Jacob that Rosie follows Polish commands, which allows Jacob to make a breakthrough in Rosie's training.

Catherine Hale

Beautiful and flirtatious, Catherine is one of only four women in the Cornell class of 1931.

Jacob Jankowski

Jacob is the ninety-three-year-old narrator of the story. He worked in circuses for nearly seven years, but rarely talks about those days for fear of letting his secrets slip. He is a retired veterinarian living in a nursing home. He lost his wife, Marlena, to cancer after sixty-one years of marriage. He is no longer hurt that none of his five children offered to take him in after her death. Before he joined the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth in 1931, he was a veterinary student about to graduate from Cornell. Then his parents died in an automobile accident, leaving him homeless and penniless. After the Benzini Brothers circus collapsed, Jacob and Marlena went to work for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. His last job was as staff veterinarian at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

Charles Mansfield-Livingston

Charles Mansfield-Livingston is described by Gruen as a “dapper man with a parasitic twin growing out of his chest.” Uncle Al, a lover of “born freaks,” takes the troupe on an unexpected detour so he can try and acquire Mansfield-Livingston for the Benzini Brothers circus.


Marlena is August's wife and the beautiful leader of the liberty horses. When Rosie becomes part of the show, Marlena performs with her, too. She was seventeen when she met August. He swept her off her feet and she married him and joined the circus almost immediately. For that, her family disowned her. She and Jacob fall in love, but she cannot, initially, leave August, despite his paranoid schizophrenia and tendency toward brutality. When Jacob tries to sway her, she says, “I just can't. I'm married. I made my bed, and now I have to lie in it.” She agrees to marry Jacob only after August is killed. They join the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus and raise five children together. She and Jacob are married for sixty-one years before she dies of cancer.

Joseph McGuinty

Joseph McGuinty is a newcomer to the nursing home. He claims to have carried water for the elephants during the circus days of his youth. Jacob vehemently denies this could be true, so the two men become enemies.


Queenie is Walter's beloved Jack Russell terrier. She is devoted to Walter and initially distrusts Jacob as much as Walter does. She slowly warms to him and eventually becomes his dog after Walter is killed.


Rosemary is Jacob's favorite nurse in the nursing home. She is the only one of the nurses who treats Jacob like a real person and takes the time to listen to him. At a moment when Jacob is feeling especially vulnerable, she tells him, “You're a fine gentleman and I'm honored to know you.” He is devastated to find out that she will soon be leaving to be closer to her mother-in-law.


Rosie is the bull elephant that Uncle Al procures from the Fox Brothers Circus after it goes out of business. Her former keeper describes her as “the stupidest godd—animal on the face of the earth.” August beats her mercilessly with a bull hook because she cannot seem to take direction or be trained in any way, but Jacob soon discovers that she only understands Polish. When given commands in Polish, she

proves to be quite intelligent and charming and turns out to be the hit of the show. August beats her too brutally one too many times and she finally takes her revenge on him. Jacob fights to keep her when the Benzini Brothers circus goes out of business.


Simon is Jacob's firstborn son. At the beginning of the novel he is seventy-six years old and forgets it is his turn to visit his father the day the circus comes to town.


Walter is a performer in the circus, a red-haired, heavily freckled dwarf who goes by the stage name Kinko. When August tells Walter that Jacob will be rooming with him, Walter is incensed. “A menagerie man? Forget it. I'm a performer. There's no way I'm bunking with a working man.” Walter hates Jacob for a while, but warms up to him after Jacob cures his dog's diarrhea. The two become good friends and begin looking after each other and also Camel. Walter finds Camel's long lost son and arranges for a reunion. Before it can happen, Walter and Camel are redlighted and killed.

Dean Wilkins

Dean Wilkins pulls Jacob from class to tell him his parents have been killed in an automobile accident. He drives him to the police station and, days later, watches as Jacob walks out of his final exams. Several months later he allows Jacob to sit for exams again.



Many of the characters in Water for Elephants face situations that challenge their ability to survive. Much of the story, therefore, revolves around the various ways they choose to face these challenges. Some characters find themselves making decisions they would not otherwise make if they were not challenged by poverty, hunger, or moral dilemmas. Others seem to thrive on the need to survive, doing whatever they have to with no thought of the consequences of their actions. Still others do what they can to make sure those around them survive.

When Jacob Jankowski's parents die, he is faced with the challenge of deciding how to survive. He has no money and no prospects for a job. He is homeless, parentless, and directionless. In his grief-stricken state, however, he is unable to make a conscious decision about his future. Instead, he simply reacts. He runs away from his life by hopping a train and allows the winds of fate to carry him. In this instance, Camel extends a hand and assists in the boy's survival. It is only after Jacob is established with the circus that he begins to make conscious decisions about his survival and the survival of those around him.

Uncle Al relies on the misfortunes of others to survive. Described as “a buzzard, a vulture, an eater of carrion,” the circus ringmaster thinks nothing of profiting off the economic collapse of other shows or the physical disfigurements of the “born freaks” he collects. When money is low, he simply refuses to pay his workers or he has them “redlighted”—tossed from the train in the middle of the night. His desire to survive drives him to betrayal and murder, though one suspects he would betray and murder whether his survival is at stake or not.


The subplot of Water for Elephants revolves around the thoughts and actions of ninety-three-


  • Research the figure of P.T. Barnum, the man behind the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Compare what you learn with what you know about Uncle Al. Are the men alike or different and in what ways? Write a paper detailing your findings, including the time period Barnum lived in and his effect on American culture.
  • Imagine what it must have been like to be alive during the Great Depression. Put yourself in Jacob Jankowski's place when he was a Cornell student. Consider what it would be like to find out that the security you have always known and the plans you have for your life have been dashed. What would you do? How would you earn a living and make a life for yourself? Write a paper that details your thoughts and possible plans.
  • In Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski is portrayed as both a young man and an elderly man. Do you think the chapters that feature Jacobas an old man in any way enhance those that describe his experiences with the Benzini Brothers circus? How do the chapters about young Jacob affect those that feature him as a ninety-three-year-old?Do they contribute to a deeper understanding of the old man's life? Write an essay detailing your thoughts.
  • Uncle Al tells Jacob that August suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. What is that? How does it manifest itself? Do all paranoid schizophrenics behave like August? Do they all have dangerously violent tendencies? Using the Internet or library resources, research paranoid schizophrenia and how it affects human behavior. Compare your findings with what you know about August.

year-old Jacob Jankowski over the course of several days. The major theme of the subplot is how his advanced age affects his human mind and body. Forced to live in a nursing home because none of his children offer to take him in, Jacob feels trapped on many levels. He fantasizes about certain foods because he is fed only soft, tasteless, easy-to-digest meals. He says, “I know some of us don't have teeth, but I do, and I want pot roast.” His inability to eat what he likes serves as a focal point for his general frustration with old age.

His appearance troubles him, too.

My face. I push the porridge aside and open my vanity mirror. I should know better by now, but somehow I still expect to see myself. Instead, I find an Appalachian apple doll, withered and spotty, with dewlaps and bags and long floppy ears. A few strands of white hair spring absurdly from its spotted skull…I lean close and open my eyes very wide, trying to see beyond the sagging flesh. It's no good. Even when I look straight into the milky blue eyes, I can't find myself anymore. When did I stop being me?

But Jacob finds the most troubling part of aging to be the deterioration of his mind. “I close my eyes and reach for the far corners of my mind. They're no longer clearly defined. My brain is like a universe whose gases get thinner and thinner at the edges. But it doesn't dissolve into nothingness. I can sense something out there, just beyond my grasp, hovering, waiting—and God help me if I'm not skidding toward it again, mouth open wide.” It seems Jacob is only able to come to terms with his age when he is allowed to join the circus again. He says, “So what if I'm ninety-three? So what if I'm ancient and cranky and my body's a wreck? If they're willing to accept me and my guilty conscience, why the hell shouldn't I run away with the circus?”



The time period of Water for Elephants—Depression-era America—serves to inform the majority of the story's plot, tone, and characterization. Much of the action is driven by desperate situations, a common and widespread state of existence during the early 1930s. People everywhere were unemployed, out of luck, hungry, and worried about the future. In the novel, circus workers and performers are forced to stay with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth even when they are not being paid; they are, at least, being fed. They understand the scarcity of jobs and feel grateful to be employed, regardless of the working conditions or who they are working for.

The physical setting of Water for Elephants—a tatty 1930s train circus—is the perfect background for Gruen's historical fiction. Because the action takes place in a circus, the author is able to weave history, anecdotes, and outrageous factual details from facts into a story that features a charming and majestic elephant as a heroine. The combination of colorful characters, bizarre situations, complex love, and heartbreaking brutality make perfect sense in a story set against the backdrop of a circus. The setting, in this case, is critical to the believability and authenticity of the story.


The Great Depression

In Water for Elephants, the Great Depression serves as both setting and thematic element and influences various aspects of the story.

The Great Depression, the worst economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world, began in the United States when the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929. The ensuing financial panic spread to the rest of the world and lasted from the end of 1929 to the early 1940s. The collapse of the money supply, coupled with a devastating drought that crippled the American Southern Plains, caused banks to fail and businesses to close, which resulted in more than 15 million Americans (or one-quarter of the workforce) becoming unemployed.

In 1929, President Herbert Hoover underestimated the seriousness of the crisis, calling it “a passing incident in our national lives.” He assured Americans it would be over in sixty days. As the Great Depression dragged on for years, Hoover was widely ridiculed and eventually blamed. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, governor of New York, was elected president in a landslide victory largely because he promised a “New Deal” for Americans. Once in office, he quickly took action against the Depression. He declared a four-day bank holiday, during which Congress passed the Emergency Banking Relief Act in an effort to stabilize the banking system. He spent the first hundred days of his administration laying the groundwork for New Deal remedies that would rescue the country from its despair.

Because the prevailing attitude of the 1920s was that success was earned and failure was deserved, the difficulties brought about by the Depression affected Americans deeply. New Deal programs provided government relief, but men who felt responsible for providing for their families were humiliated by having to ask for assistance. The psychological repercussions of the Great Depression were profound.

The Dustbowl

A combination of environmental factors, primarily a widespread drought that began in 1931, came together to create the Dust Bowl. The Southern Plains of the United States—the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, western Kansas, and the eastern portions of Colorado and New Mexico—suffered devastating dust storms made of millions of tons of stinging, blinding black dirt that wreaked havoc on the landscape and its inhabitants for almost ten years. The dust storms caused crops and livestock to grow sick and die. By the end of 1935, after four years without substantial rainfall, Dust Bowlers were forced to give up. They packed up their meager belongings and left homes, businesses, churches, and schools behind. They headed west in great numbers, hoping to find farm work in California. Those who chose to stay saw their first ray of hope in 1936, when leading agricultural expert Hugh Bennett conceived of an innovative plan to conserve topsoil. Congress approved a federal program that would pay farmers to use his new farming techniques. A year later, the soil conservation plan was underway. Although the drought dragged on, the new techniques seemed to take hold and soil loss was reduced by sixty-five percent. It finally started raining again in the fall of 1939.


After decades of pressure by activists in the temperance (anti-alcohol) movement, Congress ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1919. In combination with another piece of legislation called the Volstead Act, the Eighteenth Amendment outlawed the sale, manufacture, or transportation of “intoxicating liquors” within the United States, a state of affairs generally referred to as “Prohibition.” The law did little to stop people from drinking alcohol. Illegal nightclubs called “speakeasies” were common in major cities, liquor was smuggled into the United States from Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere regularly by bootleggers, and many enterprising individuals simply took to making their own beer, wine, and liquor. Those who chose to drink during Prohibition faced a number of risks. First, there was the constant threat of a police raid. Second, and much more significantly, there were the potential health hazards of homemade or otherwise unregulated liquor: improperly prepared, alcoholic beverages can be toxic.

The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution in 1933.


Water for Elephants was released amid a flurry of publicity in June 2006. Its whimsical premise combined with author Gruen's two previous successes set it up to be a book for which many had high hopes. Despite tepid critical praise, readers were extraordinarily enthusiastic. As a result, the novel ascended the New York Times bestseller list over the course of a year, landing at number one in the summer of 2007.

In the New York Times Book Review, Elizabeth Judd writes,

At its finest, Water for Elephants resembles stealth hits like The Giant's House, by Elizabeth McCracken, or The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism. But Gruen's prose is merely serviceable, and she hurtles through cataclysmic events, overstuffing her whiplash narrative with drama (there's an animal stampede, two murders and countless fights).

While Judd has issues with Gruen's prose and is not wholly convinced by the love story of Jacob and Marlena, she does appreciate other aspects of Gruen's writing talent. She writes, “With a showman's expert timing, she saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale.”


Ann Guidry

Ann Guidry is a freelance writer and editor. In this essay, she explores the notion of illusion and how it affects the story and characters in Water for Elephants . She also looks at how illusion plays into the book's popular success.

In Chapter Seven of Water for Elephants, August talks to Jacob about the reality of the circus. He says, “The whole thing's illusion, Jacob, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's what people want from us. It's what they expect.” Illusion, defined as something that deceives or misleads intellectually, plays a dominant role in the novel. As August points out, “rubes” come to the circus for the sole purpose of being deceived. When they pay their money to be delighted by the sights and sounds of the circus, it is because they hope to leave reality behind, if only briefly. This was especially true during the hard times of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the period in which the novel is set. Many of the novel's characters use the power of illusion as a survival mechanism. August's charm and generosity, for example, serve the illusory purpose of diverting attention away from his brutal side. Illusion plays a role in the popular success of the novel, too. The fairytale elements of the story, the historical setting, and the decision to use Rosie the elephant as a heroine combine to create a decidedly escapist treat that critics may deride, but readers cannot resist. The narrative of Water for Elephants, like the circus it describes, relies on showmanship and illusion to communicate its story effectively. The book's popular success is proof of the power of illusion and its effectiveness as a literary device.

A shattered illusion sets the action of Water for Elephants in motion. After his parents are killed in a car accident, young Jacob Jankowski learns that the stable, successful life they appeared to enjoy—home-ownership, a thriving veterinary practice, the ability to pay their son's Ivy League tuition—was merely a front. In fact, the bank owned their house and his father had taken to accepting beans, eggs, chickens, and other goods for payment from clients hard hit by the Great Depression. Suddenly, Jacob is immersed in the poverty from which he had been protected all his life. The vision Jacob previously had of a prosperous future working as a veterinarian alongside his father simply vanishes.

It is no surprise that Jacob escapes from this hard reality in classic fashion: he runs away and joins the circus. In literature, in film, and in the popular imagination, the circus is like an alternate universe, a fantasy world where the past is erased and geography itself ceases to exist. Working as a bouncer on his first night with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, Jacob gets a firsthand look at the power of illusion and the role it plays in the sideshow. The deception begins when Cecil, the sideshow barker, begins describing the many sights awaiting the crowd: “the m-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-rvelous wonders we have gathered from all four corners of the earth,…the oddities, the freaks of nature, the spectacles!” Jacob learns the real truth about the sideshow oddities later, when August talks to him about the realities of the circus. Nothing advertised about any of their performers is true. Marlena, who performs with the horses, is not royalty. Lucinda, the fat lady, is nowhere near eight hundred advertised pounds. The tattooed man tattooed himself—he was not attacked by the natives of Borneo. Still, August insists, none of this matters. People do not really care about the truth; they, like Jacob, come to the circus to escape the truth.

Just as the circus itself is a locus of illusion, the characters within the circus are also wrapped in deception and mystery. The elephant Rosie is an excellent example. Uncle Al procures Rosie from the failed Fox Brothers circus because he was led to believe she was their best elephant, and he looks forward greedily to the moneymaking shows she will put on for his circus. It turns out Al himself has fallen for an illusion. He delights himself with visions of an elephant act on par with that offered by the Ringling Brothers circus, but reality appears to come crashing in when the elephant trainer describes Rosie as “the stupidest…animal on the face of the earth.” Al is both crushed and enraged. He had been so enamored of the illusion of Rosie's abilities, he did not realize he had been deceived when buying her…or had he? It later becomes apparent that Rosie's “stupidity” is also an illusion. She is, in fact, a very smart animal and capable performer. In the end, it is Rosie's decisive action that gives Jacob and Marlena a happy life together.

August, the equestrian director and superintendent of animals, is the book's most illusory character. Marlena describes him as “mercurial,” though it is soon made clear that the man is not just moody. He is filled with extreme, contradictory impulses. On the same day that he nearly feeds Jacob to Rex the big cats, he also invites him to dinner and plays the consummate host. At dinner, August is so charming he manages to convince Jacob that he was wrong in thinking him dangerous or brutal. In fact, August's charm is a dangerous illusion used to lull those around him into trusting him. Marlena's description of how they met and married reveals the depth of his deceptive personality. She and her family were at the circus, and he approached her when her parents had wandered away from her—when she was alone and vulnerable. Handsome and almost irresistibly charming, August managed to sweep Marlena off her feet in the short time her parents were away from her. Just weeks after their rushed marriage, Marlena became acquainted with the dark side of her husband. As she puts it: “When he's happy, he's the most charming creature on earth, but when something sets him off….” Stories of August's cruelty are spine-chilling. He apparently beat one circus worker so badly he lost an eye. Another died of blood loss under suspicious circumstances after helping August feed the big cats. August even may have thrown a fellow animal trainer off a moving train simply to gain possession of his horses. Certainly, his charm and good looks are powerful illusions indeed to cover such a dark reality.

The climax of Water for Elephants is the ultimate in circus fantasy: a wild and deadly stampede that brings down the big top and, in one swift literary maneuver, ties up the loose ends of the narrative. The bad Big Al and the evil August are both dead, and Jacob and Marlena are free to live happily ever after. It is the kind of deus ex machina that might usually make a reader's eyes roll, but in the context of a novel set in a fantasy world, a fantastical ending is to be expected.

After the collapse of the big top, Jacob and Marlena enter the prosaic world of “sleepless nights and wailing babies”—marriage, children, and work (though granted, some of that work was done with Ringling Brothers). Jacob describes these years very briefly as wonderful, happy, and over all too soon. In seems fitting that the events of seven decades in Jacob's life are given only a few paragraphs of general description; they are, after all the stuff of reality, and have no place in a novel about illusion.

Critics of Water for Elephants have been quick to point out that behind the glitzy trappings and exciting conflicts in the story, there is some clumsy plotting. True, some of what happens is improbable, but for readers, the fantastical, the improbable, are what make the novel appealing. The probable is an intrusion. The most uncomfortable part of Water for Elephants is the reality that keeps intruding in the form of the scenes of the elderly Jacob. These scenes contrast sharply with the fantastical world of the young circus-worker Jacob. The elderly Jacob lives in an antiseptic world of bland food and boredom. He is a withered body, nearly forgotten even by his family.

Ironically, Jacob's emotions are stirred by a lie one of the fellow residents of the nursing home tells about circus life: that he carried water for elephants while working at a circus. Jacob, of course, knows the truth about the circus world, the “reality” behind the illusion. Watching the circus going up across the street from the nursing home stirs his old memories and inspires him to slip the bonds of reality one more time and run away—again—to join the circus. A critic might justly point out that the presence right across the street of a circus for Jacob to run away to is just as unlikely as that stampede that gave him Marlena, but, again, it


  • Riding Lessons, published in 2004, is Gruen's debut novel. Its protagonist, Annemarie Zimmer, is a world-class equestrian and Olympic contender who, at the age of eighteen, experiences a tragic accident that ends her riding career. Twenty years later Annemarie comes home to her dying father's New Hampshire horse farm with her troubled teenage daughter in tow.
  • Flying Changes, published in 2005, is Gruen's second novel. This much anticipated sequel to Riding Lessons continues the story of Annemarie Zimmer.
  • Geek Love, published in 1989, was written by Katherine Dunn. This novel features the Binewski family, whose children are specially bred to be freak show stars of a traveling carnival.
  • Step Right This Way: The Photographs of Edward J. Kelty, published in 2002 and written by Edward J. Kelty, Miles Barth, Alan M. Siegel, and Edward Hoagland, is one of the books of photographs that inspired Gruen to write Water for Elephants.

does not matter. Water for Elephants is mostly fantasy, punctuated with reality for the purpose of contrast. In the end, fantasy wins, and the reader, like the rube visiting a circus, gets what he wants: a beautiful, escapist illusion.

Source: Ann Guidry, Critical Essay on Water for Elephants, in Literary News makers for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Jacqueline Blais

In the following review, Blais analyzes Water for Elephants and calls it the “summer's sleeper hit.”

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Source: Jacqueline Blais, “Step right up for Gruen's Water for Elephants,” in USA Today, June 1, 2006

Trish Crapo

In the following review, Crapo provides a synopsis of Water for Elephants and praises Gruen's talent.

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, introduces another world I hadn't known about: the circus. Narrator Jacob Jankowski is 90 or 93—he's stopped keeping track. From the confines of a nursing home, he tells the story of how, orphaned by a tragedy as a young man, he left Cornell veterinary school right before his final exams and joined the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth as an animal caretaker.

Love for Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, draws Jacob into a fierce triangle that includes her volatile husband August, who lends Jacob his own tux to wear at his dinner table one minute and engages him in fisticuffs the next. Throughout, details of circus life during the Depression more than make up for Water's few weaknesses, most noticeably a tendency toward stilted dialogue. (In all fairness, the awkwardness of the dialogue, at times, reads logically enough as outdated speech.) I reveled in the circus knowledge and lingo, learning that a “kinker” is a performer and “redlighting” is throwing unwanted workers from the train during the night, and circus horses are always white so that the powdered rosin performers put on their feet to help them stay on won't show. (And I thought it was because they looked great under the lights!) Memorable characters include Kinko, the dwarf; Nell and Barbara, dancers from the “cooch tent'; and—never to be forgotten—Rosie, the elephant. Historic black and white photos at the beginning of each chapter are an added treat.

Source: Trish Crapo, “Fiction (The Housekeeper, The Keep, The Tree-Sitter, Water for Elephants),” in The Women's Review of Books, September–October 2006, p. 26.

Elizabeth Judd

In the following review, Judd praises Water for Elephants and discusses Gruen's background and body of work.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Source: Elizabeth Judd, “Trunk Show,” in The New York Times Book Review, June 4, 2006


Blais, Jacqueline, “Step right up for Gruen's Water for Elephants,” in USA Today, June 1, 2006, http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2006-05-31-water-for-elephants_x.htm.

Gruen, Sara, Water for Elephants, Algonquin, June 2006.

Judd, Elizabeth, “Trunk Show,” in The New York Times Book Review, June 4, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/04/books/review/04judd.html.

“Surviving the Dust BowlPBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/dustbowl/index.html (February 23, 2008).


Glasier, F.W., and Mark Sloan, Wild, Weird, and Wonderful: The American Circus 1901–1927 as seen by F.W.Glasier, Photographer, Quantuck Lane Press, 2002.

Wild, Weird, and Wonderful is a collection of promotional photographs by commercial photographer F.W. Glasier of circuses that came through Brockton, Massachusetts, between 1901 and 1927. These sixty-two black-and-white photos reveal a great deal about the circus performers while the introduction, written by essayist Timothy Tegge, vividly traces circus history back to Rome. Author Sara Gruen counts this as a primary inspiration for Water for Elephants.

Hosseini, Khaled, The Kite Runner, Riverhead Books, 2003.

The Kite Runner, Hosseini's debut novel, is the story of strained family relations, guilt and forgiveness, and the political and social transformations of Afghanistan from the 1970s to 2001. The intense popularity of Water for Elephants has been compared to that of this instant bestseller.

Mannix, Daniel P., Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others, Juno Books, 2000.

In Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others, author Mannix provides firsthand stories about sideshow stars like the Alligator Man and the Monkey Woman. Filled with anecdotes and photos, the book was originally released in 1976.

Sebold, Alice, The Lovely Bones: A Novel, Little, Brown, 2002.

Set in 1973, The Lovely Bones: A Novel is about fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon who watches from a personalized heaven as her family and friends deal with their grief over her rape and dismemberment by a neighbor. The intense popularity of Water for Elephants has been compared to that of this instant bestseller.