Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Water For Elephants

Yesterday I bought a book called "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen and this afternoon I put it down with a sigh, wishing that I could read it again for the first time. I really enjoyed this novel for many reasons- the beautiful and descriptive writing, for the fascinating stories of the life and adventures of circus train workers during the Great Depression, and for its raw, emotional and introspective study of human nature. This is also one of the first books I've read in a long time that featured a male narrator, which I found refreshing.
"From the stereoview collection of Ron Erickson."

Water for Elephants is the story of a young man who jumps a train one night and inadvertently runs a way with the "Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth" traveling circus! He is thrust into a life that seems almost a charicature of our regular society- featuring all the major players, the good, the bad, the mad, the old, the cruel and the cripples and how each struggles to find his place in the hierarchy of their self governed world. I love the depth of the characters the brilliant way the author brings to life the mad mad world of a traveling circus, the lives of the men and women who worked it, the animals that survived it and the Great Depression that touched them all.

"Carl Hagenbeck Trained Animal Show. 1905 courier, one of the most artistic ever designed. Pfening Collection. Cover, Bandwagon, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Jan-Feb), 1963. "

Water for Elephants is written by a Vancouver born woman who clearly has a working knowledge of horses and a evident love of animals. Some of my favorite characters (who were equally well developed and as rich as their human counterparts) were Bobo the orangutan, Rosie the elephant, Queenie the Jack Russel Terrier and Silver Star the Arabian. I also appreciated the good old fashioned love story the author managed to squeeze in between such madness as that of a paranoid schizophrenic ring masters abusive training methods and a rather descriptive account of an amply bosomed woman's stip tease (that made me blush three shades or red). The writing is raw, honest unreserved, and certainly not for the faint of heart.

"Pawnee Bill's Wild West program, probably 1905. Cover, Bandwagon, Vol. 5, No. 6 (Dec), 1961."

Of course, being the google junkie I am, I no sooner finished the book and I was busy looking up the photos and history of real life traveling circus shows like the Ringly Brothers, and Barnum and Bailey, or even the great Wild West shows. In the process I stumbled across some amazing pictures I thought I'd share as well as some beautiful hand drawn posters. The author must of found them equally as entrancing because she included many historical photos in the pages of her work. Aren't they fabulous?

"Walter L. Main first used his name as a circus title in 1885. By 1893 his show had grown to a medium size major railroad circus, with 29 cars. The Walter L. Main's Eight Enormous United Shows was the imposing title he used on the cover of the newspaper courier shown here. The drawing on the courier was done by E. Roe for the United States Printing Co. of Cincinnati. Courier is from the Pfening Collection. Cover, Bandwagon, Vol. 8, No. 3 (May-Jun), 1964. "

"A child's delight, the circus train unloading early in the morning. Oh for the sight of fine baggage stock being unloaded from the stock cars, as shown in this Atwell photo of the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Real Wild West. Back cover, Bandwagon, Vol. 8, No. 3 (May-Jun), 1964. "


  1. Sounds like a fabulous book!! Thanks for the review - I am going to check it out.

  2. Interesting post. We've got the book at home; I'll have to read it now. Have you seen the movie "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken"? If not, I think you would enjoy it.

  3. I have been wanting to read Water for Elephants - because I think she really matured as a writer by that point.

    I tried her other two horse books and I just wanted to throw them across the room because they were everything I find annoying about people using horses in books. The cliche "romance on with the trainer/stable hand" and "wounded girl uses long lost love of horses to recover" GAG ME WITH A SPOON!....sigh....

    But I don't give up on writers so easily - while reading those I was watching her get better. I thought to myself "she really needs to write a different kind of story and she just might have it"....

    SO I want to give that one a chance and am glad that you liked it - gives me an excuse to pick it someday...

  4. Yet another book to add to my ever-growing "what to read over the summer when I can read what I want to" list. :) Thanks for the review. I want to read the Highlander series, right?? (wink, wink!!!!)

  5. I got the audiobook version of this book and could not stop listening to it - it is one of my favorites for all time. When you're ready to read it again, treat yourself to the audio version. They use two different narrators for the young and old vet and it is simply outstanding.

  6. Thank you for sharing .
    I have been wanting something new and different to read.
    I can well imagine the raw nature,
    my parents come from Hugo ,Oklahoma . Home to many Circus performers ,their home base as well as winter headquartes. Growing up in and around here provided many tales too true to be fiction .Thank you again for your
    wonderful and delightful review.

  7. I will pick that up! I'm also interested in reading a book that's coming out this month about this guy:

    read an excerpt on the plane and can't get it out of my head.

  8. One of my all time favorite books. I loved how compassion survived.

  9. You're the second person I've heard say good things about this book, so now I must read it. (what a follower I am, eh? lol!)

    Circuses....such an interesting sub-culture.
    I'm looking forward to this book now.


  10. I also loved this book, and I'm a tough book critic. I was also hesitant because I couldn't get through three pages of her earlier horse books...granted, they were written for "young adult readers".