Under the big top
Sara Gruen keeps her cat's ashes in an urn behind her desk and donates a portion of her book royalties to animal charities. It's not terribly surprising, then, that one of the most memorable characters in this animal lover's new novel is a pachyderm named Rosie.
"I've always been a complete sucker for animals," says Gruen, whose novel Water for Elephants has garnered considerable buzz for its offbeat story of a Depression-era traveling circus. "I didn't realize that maybe other people weren't until recently. I've always been 'Feed the wild ones, tame the stray ones.' "
Gruen's own menagerie—which she shares with her husband and three young sons—includes four cats, a dog, a horse and goats. Gruen spoke with BookPage recently from her home in an environmental community north of Chicago, where the residents live in energy-efficient homes and share an organic farm and a charter school.
It was in this bucolic setting that Gruen started writing her third novel (following Riding Lessons and Flying Changes) after intensive research that included several family visits to circus shows. But Water for Elephants almost didn't happen: Distraction after distraction kept Gruen from finishing the book, including the usual family illnesses and a technical-writing project that dragged on for four months.
"I found it very difficult to get back into the characters," she recalls. "I almost gave it up."
Gruen laughs as she explains the sensory-deprivation method she finally employed to buckle down and finish the book—she moved her desk to a walk-in closet, covered the window, turned off the phones and wore earplugs.
"I hope to never have to do that again!" she says.
The result was worth the struggle. Water for Elephants is the remarkable, captivating story of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a 1930s traveling circus fighting to stay solvent during the Great Depression.
Gruen brings to life a fascinating, nearly forgotten world of big tops and bearded ladies, in a time when the circus coming to town was a rare treat for those suffering through one of the bleakest chapters in our nation's history.
The story is also a bittersweet statement on growing old in modern America. Jacob Jankowski, who is either 90 or 93 years old (he's not entirely sure anymore), whiles away his days in a nursing home, missing his wife and his life. His children and grandchildren come to visit, but he finds it increasingly difficult to keep them all straight. When a traveling circus sets up in the parking lot next to his residence, his shaky mind is transported back to his days as the Benzini circus veterinarian.
After young Jacob's parents die in a car accident, he abandons his veterinary studies at Cornell and hops a Benzini train. He is soon taking care of a host of big cats, monkeys and horses, and spending his nights with the circus crew drinking bottles of the foulest bootleg imaginable.
Jacob is quickly captivated by Marlena, the lovely but married star of the Benzini show. Her husband August is a dashing, vicious man who trains (and often beats) the circus animals. Rosie, the prized elephant that the Benzini show bought from a failed competitor, is often at the wrong end of August's wrath. Eventually, so is Jacob.
Gruen was one day away from starting a new novel on an entirely different topic when she read a newspaper feature about famed circus photographer Edward J. Kelty. In the years after World War I, Kelty followed circuses around the country, capturing mesmerizing images of sword swallowers, giants and midgets.
Gruen saw Kelty's work and thought, "Wow! I could put a novel in that." She set aside her other project and began researching the unique community of circus workers.
"I wanted to preserve a snapshot of that very extreme culture, because it's gone," she says.
The book is stuffed with authentic, largely forgotten details about life during the Depression. Gruen writes about a grizzled circus worker named Camel suffering from "Jake Leg." The condition afflicted tens of thousands of people who drank a Jamaican ginger extract during Prohibition, not knowing that it could cause paralysis.
Getting the historical details right was painstaking work, but Gruen found she had no trouble capturing the nuances of Jacob, a crotchety nonagenarian.
"He was the one who was just there," she says. "I think it scared my husband. I just turned on the tap and there's this cantankerous old man."
"It was much more difficult to write the historical chapters," she says. "You know, was there running water in a 1930s train car? I would finish those chapters with my tongue hanging out. Then I'd reach the safety of Jacob's nursing home."
Some of the history included in the book—such as Jake Leg and the rampant abuse of circus animals and workers—is haunting, but Gruen doesn't flinch from that reality.
In one of the book's many poignant moments, Jacob discovers why the elephant Rosie is so seemingly ill-suited for circus life, leading to her many beatings at the hands of August. In her author's note, Gruen makes clear that such abuse is historically accurate. A 1930s elephant named Topsy killed her trainer after he fed her a lit cigarette.
"Topsy's owners at Coney Island's Luna Park decided to turn her execution into a public spectacle," Gruen writes. "But the announcement that they were going to hang her met with uproar—after all, wasn't hanging a cruel and unusual punishment?"
The elephant was electrocuted in front of 1,500 spectators.
Sad? Absolutely. But if anything, discovering such stories while writing Water for Elephants only intensified Gruen's devotion to animals.
"I came into this project loving elephants, but now I'm absolutely besotted," Gruen laughs.
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.