Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Mini-Review of "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen
Sara, you had me at "elephants"!
I can't explain it, but I have carried on a life-long love affair with elephants. I think the infatuation began with the annual trek to the circus. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of making the long drive - many years before the ideas of I-95 or I-93 had made their way from the draftsman's drawing board to the civil engineers - from Newburyport to Everett, where we would park the Chevy and take the "El" to Boston. (The elevated train ran in those days from Everett into the city approximating some of the route of today's Orange Line.) We always parked by the infamous sulphur pile by the Monsanto plant, and the smell of sulphur would burn my nostrils until we walked into the old Boston Garden and made our way to the circus menagerie and elephant row. It may have been that the sweet cocktail of scents - elephant sweat, hay, sawdust and elephant dung, cleansed my olfactory system of the damage that Monsanto had done to it, but to this day, there are not many smells that bring back such powerful memories and warm emotions as "eau de elephant." I could stand for hours on end watching them sway back and forth and swing their trunks from side to side. They would reach for the peanuts that we proffered, taking them gently with the "finger" of their trunk. The love affair deepened when my family went to Benson's Wild Animal Farm in Hudson, New Hampshire, and I had a chance to ride on the back of an elephant.
So, when I learned that Sara Gruen had written a novel about circus life in the 1930's with plenty of emphasis on the elephant acts, I knew I had to read this book. I was not disappointed. She wonderfully lays out the results of her meticulous research into the ethos of the small circuses that traveled the country by rail before and after the Great Depression. Gruen, in her debut novel, wields her pen like a lion tamer's whip, keeping in check and in motion a motley cast of characters facing a dizzying assortment of challenges and dangers. She tells the story through the voice and faltering memory of ninety-year-old (perhaps ninety-three, since he is not quite sure any more) Jacob as he recounts his days with the circus, where he began "carrying water for the elephants." It is an epic tale that is deeply moving and richly evocative.
The plot twists and turns in this wondrous story kept me engrossed and intrigued. I loved this book, and will watch for Gruen's next offering.
Enjoy "Water for Elephants."