When Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel Water for Elephants came out in 2006, the demand on the library shelves was instant. I wanted to check this out but it never came back in the library for more than a few days and would go out right away. Well, 3 years later, I finally read it! Exciting news! And it took me 3 days – I completely devoured this novel. Definitely one worth staying up reading.

If you haven’t read it already, here’s the author’s synopsis from her website at www.saragruen.com:

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie.

It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

For more info on the book and a Reader’s Guide, visit www.saragruen.com/water.html.

Winning numerous awards, (again visit the author’s website), this book certainly enticed and caught the attention of readers and critics alike. The writing set this book apart from its peers, as well as the special attention to historical details, archival photos, and character development. While mixing circus history with romance and thrilling events, there was aslo a fantastical edge to the novel. The ending (I won’t spoil it!) is one of the best endings I’ve read in a long time. In recent modern fiction, the endings are often weak or lacking. That was definitely not the case with Water for Elephants. Gruen poured a great deal of creativity and research in this novel and it pays off for the reader in being one of the best reads of this decade (imho).

Whenever I read a book or topic that is intriguing (circus history? Why yes, most definitely! Seedy, Earthy, Freakish, Historical, Cross-cultural, Multi-ethnic: one of the best topics for American history!), I always want to find out more. Here’s a nice list of other circus books.

While I was reading Water for Elephants, I was reminded of a book I read many years ago,  called No Promises in the Wind by Irene Hunt (1970), a selection in the Great Books reading program I was in as a child and teen. This story is also set during the years of the Depression and after. The plot is also about a young man (teenager) and his brother who are forced to leave home because there is no money and no food. The teenager is a talented pianist who finds a job working in a circus and he befriends a dwarf and falls in love with a 30 year old female clown, Emily. This is a sad and touching story, again with strong characters and a historically true plot. Times were very hard and teens had to grow up fast. It was such a memorable story that after 18 years I still remembered the book and characters. A synopsis of No Promises in the Wind is available on a Wikipedia entry.

Did you ever go to the circus? Read other circus books? What are your favorite memories? Do you remember the people? The excitement? The smells? The animals? The entertainers? Going to the circus is a fond memory for me. Perhaps that’s why I’m interested in the topic and why books about the circus prove to be enjoyable reads.

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