Saturday, March 01, 2008

Three Ring Circus

Last night was a dinner meeting of my book group, an eclectic collection of women who range from doctors and lawyers, to educators and research scientists. We usually meet on Sunday mornings, so last night was a rare treat -- dinner and wine, enjoyed while we discussed our selection of the month. Of course, I use the term "discussed" rather loosely, since it sometimes seems that we spend more time discussing our next selection to read than the merits of the current book itself. This month's book was Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants.

Water for Elephants was one of those books that I was sure would not be my taste, so I avoided reading it for as long as possible. I didn't even begin reading it until last week-end.

Once I did, I couldn't put it down. It was a fascinating look at a time period (depression era) and lifestyle (circus) that I was mostly unfamiliar with. In a well written tale, Gruen tells the story of:

Jacob Jankowski is pushing 90 and wallowing in a nursing home, abandoned by his family and surrounded by aged octogenarians who irk him with their senility. He has few pleasures in life --- an astute and friendly nurse named Rosemary and his vibrant memories. As Jacob lies in his bed, drifting in and out of sleep, lucidness and dreams, the compelling story of his experiences as a young man unfolds in Sara Gruen's mesmerizing new novel, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS.

The year is 1932. Jacob is 23 and just shy of getting his degree in veterinary medicine from Cornell when he learns that his parents have been killed in a horrific accident. Emotionally and monetarily stranded, unmoored and with nothing to lose, Jacob jumps a train and finds himself traveling with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Starting at the bottom rung of the strict caste system within the ranks of the Circus employees, Jacob's veterinary knowledge quickly garners him a place near the top of the hierarchy, among the company of the hot-headed ringmaster August and his beautiful wife Marlena --- the all-purpose female star of the show.
See I especially liked the weaving of the time periods in Jacob's life and the entertaining stories of the circus and its exotic creatures -- both the people and the animals. Certainly, the growing attraction between Jacob and Marlena is central to the novel, but I truly enjoyed the various antics of the animals and the circuses many odd characters (despite its dark and sometimes cruel side of life as well). As the NYTimes book review by Elizabeth Judd, Trunk Show, observes:

The troupe crisscrosses the country cannibalizing acts that have gone bankrupt in the Depression-era economy. After Uncle Al, the autocratic ringmaster, purchases Rosie, an elephant with an unquenchable thirst for lemonade and the inability to follow the simplest command, Benzini Brothers looks doomed. How Jacob coaxes Rosie to perform — thereby saving the circus — lies at the heart of the novel.

Gruen, whose first novel was "Riding Lessons," turns horses and other creatures into sympathetic characters. According to an author's note, she studied elephant body language and behavior with a former handler at the Kansas City Zoo. The research pays off. August's mistreatment of Marlena pales beside the visceral wallop of his nonchalant cruelty toward Rosie: "I look up just as he flicks the cigarette. It arcs through the air and lands in Rosie's open mouth, sizzling as it hits her tongue. She roars, panicked, throwing her head and fishing inside her mouth with her trunk. August marches off. I turn back to Rosie. She stares at me, a look of unspeakable sadness on her face. Her amber eyes are filled with tears."

Second-rate and seedy, Benzini Brothers suffers a collective inferiority complex (no one is permitted to utter the word "Ringling" in Uncle Al's presence). When Lovely Lucinda, the 400-pound fat lady, dies suddenly, Uncle Al orchestrates a funeral procession led by 24 black Percherons and an army of mourners competing for the three dollars and bottle of Canadian whiskey promised to whoever puts on the best show. "You've never seen such grief — even the dogs are howling."

An interview with the author that was included with the novel mentioned that Gruen had never even been to a circus growing up. The idea for the novel came after she saw an article on a circus photographer, Author Profile: Sara Gruen, and she intersperses circus photos between chapters of the book. Many of the animal tales were based upon snippets of real incidents that she discovered in her research on circuses. Jennifer Krieger of, likewise adds:

Gruen spent years researching Depression-era circuses, and the breadth of her knowledge is revealed in all the tiny details that pepper Jacob's memories, but she also has a finely-tuned radar for the magic and mysteries of the human heart. The meat and madness of this novel may appear to lie in Jacob's memories of his younger self, but in her subtle exploration of Jacob as an old man, Gruen finds an equally compelling story.
I think the other appealing part of the story for me was that Rosie the elephant reminded me of an elephant from my own childhood, Tillie the Elephant. Despite its size, the city of Scranton had a zoo at Nay Aug Park, complete with an elephant. Tillie the Elephant was a huge draw. In fact, the zoo had elephants almost from its first days in operation in the early 1920s. As the Scranton Times notes, after the first elephant, Queenie, died in 1935:
Looking to quickly fill that void, the Times conducted another elephant drive. Schoolchildren again responded with buckets of coins. By the end of the month, Tillie the elephant and her companion, Joshua the donkey, were welcomed by a weekend crowd of 55,000.

The inseparable pair, who came from a New Hampshire animal farm, were soon headlining parades. Tillie gained 668 pounds in her first year at the cramped zoo, tipping the scale at more than 3,350 pounds in April 1936.

Her dust baths in a dirt padlock entertained thousands. Tillie would scoop up dirt with her trunk, then toss it over her shoulders and back. The baths ended in 1951 when officials poured concrete on the 30-by- 50-foot paddock.

Tillie was euthanized in February 1966. Tillie, at 42, suffered from a variety of ailments, including gangrene in her rear feet. Days earlier, she sent park superintendent George Lowry to the hospital — where he stayed eight days — after flailing her trunk, knocking the man through a doorway and against a concrete wall.
See Electric City has history of attachment to elephants. Like Rosie, Tillie certainly was able to express herself. She may be long gone, but Tillie the Elephant is still a major part of the lore of Scranton's history.

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