Book Review: Sara Gruen’s historical novel gives readers inside peak at circus

Print version
April 8, 2011, 12:58 a.m. | Books — by Elena Zhuk

If someone would have asked people in 1930s America to describe the traveling circus, they would tell you about tents, magical music and laughing children whose hands are sticky with cotton candy.

Author Sara Gruen, in her historical novel “Water For Elephants,” takes the reader to the circus backstage to reveal the unbelievable secrets of the traveling circus.

You only need to look attentively to see that dirt and poverty hide behind all these happy faces and bright costumes. Anger and betrayal also lurk. It follow that all the shocking and breathtaking tricks and stunts contain elements of illusion – lies to extract gold coins from your pockets.

“Water For Elephants” was published in 2006, landing on The New York Times bestseller for 12 weeks.

The screen version of the story will be released worldwide in late April, with Twilight movie star Robert Pattinson and Oscar-winning Reese Witherspoon.

Ukrainian moviegoers can expect to see it in May, giving people enough time to read the book.

The plot involves Jacob Jankowski, a young Polish man, who dreams of becoming a veterinarian like his father. When Jankowski was told that his parents died in an accident, he runs away right after graduating from a prestigious university.

Left with nothing after paying all his father’s debts, he takes off with no particular destination in mind. Sleeping in a train, he knows nothing about the traveling circus that is traveling with him.

Thanks to kind-hearted circus worker Camel, Jankowski stays with the circus and becomes a veterinarian for circus animals.

He becomes a part of the huge and massive machine – the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show On Earth.

He meets August, the head trainer, who seems nice, generous and charming at first; Marlena, his wife – tiny and soft, though strong enough to tame even the wildest horse; Kinko the clown and his dog Quinnie. And, of course, he meets huge but beautiful elephant Rosie.

Regardless of the book’s name, it is the story of only one elephant, but one who makes the reader laugh or cry throughout the pages.

“Water For Elephants” is full of funny and tragic situations. It bursts with juicy details so real that you can almost touch, smell and see them.

The book is so alive that you start living it. Just a second ago you were sitting in the cozy chair and now you are standing right in the middle of the dusty square, hearing Uncle Al, the circus owner, who is presenting Fat Lucinda to the impressed crowd.

This trustworthiness isn’t a surprise. Gruen, while working on another story in 2003, accidentally came across photos of the traveling circuses.

She immediately dropped the other project and dove into the history of American circuses.

She visited shows, museums and exhibitions and spent her last money on rare books and photo albums. An elephant trainer from Kansas taught her to how understand elephant body language.

According to Gruen, all the stories in the book are either based on real ones or taken from circus jokes, which are never far from the truth.

However, nothing is perfect. The plot takes a banal turn and a few of the twists don’t succeed in surprising. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty good read.

Kyiv Post staff writer Elena Zagrebina can be reached at

The Kyiv Post is hosting comments to foster lively public debate through the Disqus system. Criticism is fine, but stick to the issues. Comments that include profanity or personal attacks will be removed from the site. The Kyiv Post will ban flagrant violators. If you think that a comment or commentator should be banned, please flag the offending material.
comments powered by Disqus


© 1995–2015 Public Media

Web links to Kyiv Post material are allowed provided that they contain a URL hyperlink to the material and a maximum 500-character extract of the story. Otherwise, all materials contained on this site are protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced without the prior written permission of Public Media at
All information of the Interfax-Ukraine news agency placed on this web site is designed for internal use only. Its reproduction or distribution in any form is prohibited without a written permission of Interfax-Ukraine.