I don’t normally appreciate stories that flip back and forth between two or more time periods or sub plots. I find them distracting and annoying because the transitions are usually abrupt and jarring. Until now, the only book I’ve read that does the transition between present and past skillyfully is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg; Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is the second.
Gruen tells the story of Jacob Jankowski, a ninety — or is ninety-three? — year old former circus vet whose life takes an exciting turn when a circus sets up shop across the street from his nursing home. The present-day circus sparks memories of Jacob’s own experiences with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, which plunged him right in the middle of love, hate, despair, and wild animals.
Most of the story is told in flashbacks to the summer of 1931, and begins when Jacob’s parents are killed a few days before he’s scheduled to sit his final exams at Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. Senseless with grief, he hops a train that just happens to be a cab of the Benzini Brothers. When Uncle Al the circus boss discovers Jacob is a Cornell educated vet, he pulls Jacob into the Benzini family and sets him to work caring for the animals in the circus menagerie. Along the way, Jacob falls in love — with Marlena the horse trainer as well as with the animals he cares for — especially Rosie, a bull elephant who only understands Polish.
Back in the present, the older Jacob struggles with the limitations age has inflicted on him, all the while waiting for his family to come take him to the circus. When it becomes clear that his family has forgotten him, Jacob picks up his walker and gets himself across the street to the show. There he meets the boss, who is fascinated to discover Jacob was in the thick of one of biggest circus disasters of all time. During the course of their conversation, Jacob, ever the con-man, convinces the circus boss to take him along for the rest of the season, effectively running away with the circus for a second time.
Gruen has done her homework and includes wonderful details of circus life in the 1930s, including real life stories like the elephant that was responsible for drinking all the lemonade made for the concession stands, and the paralysis — jake leg– suffered by the hard-drinking circus men and associated with drinking Jamaica Ginger Extract while real liquor was outlawed under Prohibition. The story moves quickly and contains enough action to keep the reader satisfied. Highly recommended.