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Water for Elephants  
Water for elephants.jpg
Author Sara Gruen
Cover artist Charles Mason/Getty Images
Country United States of America
Language English
Genre(s) Historical romance novel
Publisher Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing
Publication date 26 May 2006 (1st edition)
Media type Print
Pages 335 (first edition)
ISBN ISBN 1-56512-499-5 (first edition)
OCLC Number 61362217
Dewey Decimal 813/.6 22
LC Classification PS3607.R696 W38 2006

Water for Elephants is a historical novel by Sara Gruen. The novel centers on Jacob Jankowski and his experiences in a travelling circus called The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Gruen originally wrote the novel as part of National Novel Writing Month[1].



Set during the Great Depression, Water for Elephants tells the story of a young man who leaves his life as a Cornell University veterinary student after losing both his parents in a car accident, and jumps onto a train that happens to house the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. After a short confrontation with Blackie, a bouncer that stops stowaways, and Camel (a limp old worker) promising him a job and an audience with Uncle Al (The Ringmaster) Jacob decides to stay aboard the train. Since his parents have died in an automobile accident, and he has not a home to call his own, he decides to remain with the circus. Jacob is employed as the show’s veterinarian and he faces a number of challenges in dealing with the head trainer, August, while also learning how to function in the hierarchy of the circus and falling in love with August's wife, Marlena.

The story is told as a series of memories by Jacob Jankowski, either a ninety or ninety-three year-old man who lives in a nursing home.

As the memories begin, Jacob Jankowski is twenty-three years old and preparing for his final exams as a Cornell University veterinary student when he receives the news that his parents were killed in a car accident. Jacob’s father was a veterinarian and Jacob had planned to join his practice. When Jacob learns that his father was deeply in debt because he had been treating animals for free as well as mortgaging the family home to provide Jacob an Ivy League education, he has a breakdown and leaves school just short of graduation. In the dark of night, he jumps on a train only to learn it is a circus train. When the owner of the circus, Uncle Al, learns of his training as a vet, he is hired to care for the circus animals.

The head trainer, August, is a brutal man who abuses the animals in his care as well as the people around him. Alternately, he can be utterly charming. Jacob develops a guarded relationship with August and his wife, Marlena, with whom Jacob falls in love. August is suspicious of their relationship and beats Marlena and Jacob. Marlena subsequently leaves August, which is the precipitating event leading to the ultimate demise of the Benzini Brothers circus.

As the story climaxes, several circus workers who were redlighted off the train come back and release the animals causing a stampede during the performance. (Redlighting refers to throwing circus workers off the moving train as punishment or in order to avoid paying them[2]). In the ensuing panic, August is killed. As a result of this incident, which occurred during a circus performance, the circus is shut down. Marlena and Jacob leave, along with several circus animals, and begin their life together.


  • Jacob Jankowski – The novel’s protagonist. He is a "90, or 93"-year-old nursing home resident reminiscing on the time he spent as a circus veterinarian during the Great Depression.
  • Marlena – A star performer with the circus. Marlena joined the circus after she ran away from home to marry August. She enjoys a special rapport with the horses and cares for them deeply.
  • August – Marlena’s husband and the head animal trainer. He is alternately charming and brutal, both to the humans and animals aboard the Benzini Brothers train. Later in the book, it is explained that he is a paranoid schizophrenic.
  • Uncle Al – The violent, abusive owner of the circus. He is known for redlighting circus workers – having them thrown off the moving circus train in the middle of the night to avoid paying them. If these roustabouts are deemed to have committed some particularly egregious offense, they were thrown off while the train was passing over a trestle, presumably with the hope that they would die or be seriously injured.
  • Kinko/Walter – A dwarf with whom Jacob shares living quarters on the circus train. Initially, their relationship is rocky, but they develop a strong friendship. At the beginning of the story, he is known as Kinko. Walter is his real name and he only lets his friends call him this. He has a Jack Russell Terrier named Queenie whom he is very attached to. When Jacob doesn't do what Uncle Al wants him to do, Al has Blackie redlight Walter and Camel over a railroad bridge. Camel died immediately and Walter was hurt so severely that it was believed that he died shortly after.
  • Camel – One of the first people Jacob meets when he jumps the train. Camel is a drunk who is instrumental in getting Jacob a job with the circus. When Camel gets sick from drinking contaminated Jamaican ginger, Jacob and Walter hide him in their room and care for him.
  • Rosie – An elephant that Uncle Al buys from another circus. She is believed to be useless until it is discovered that she understands commands only in Polish. She is often the target of August’s rage.
  • Rosemary – A nurse in the nursing home where Jacob lives who is especially kind to Jacob.


Sara Gruen has said that the backbone of her story parallels the biblical story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis.[3] The book contains multiple references to Ringling Brothers as the best circus of the time. Also, photos of actual circuses and circus performers of the time are included throughout the book.


Major themes and symbols

The major themes explored in this novel include circus life during the depression (Gruen did extensive research on the subject[4]), the testing of a man’s moral compass, self worth, mental illnesses, acting on emotions, illusion vs. reality, and love triangles.

  • Water - A symbol of purification which is portrayed many times. Before Jacob jumps on the train the book states:
When I first submerged my feet into frigid water, they hurt so badly I yanked them out again. I persisted, dunking them for longer and longer periods, until the cold finally blistered.".[5]
  • train tracks - Are a symbol of choosing one's direction in life. For instance, the book states:

"This is so odd...I'm running beside a moving train in the middle of nowhere".[6]


In the beginning of the novel, Jacob mocks another resident of the nursing home who claims to have worked in the circus and carried water for the elephants. We are led to believe that this is a popular, but untrue, claim.


Literary significance & criticism

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that the death of August is described three to four times through Jacob's viewpoint, once in the Prologue and once at the end of the novel. In the first instance, the passage is written in such a way that the reader might believe that the character August is killed by many elephants who had been angry for the lack of food, although Marlena's love interest. In the fourth instance, August is clearly killed by Rosie the elephant, who has hated him for bad treatment he has caused her. The novel leaves who actually killed August deliberately ambiguous, although the theory that it could have been Marlena is argued against by the description of the killer using a metal tent stake to split August's "head like a watermelon," something it would have been next to impossible for the slight Marlena to do. Early in the novel, Rosemary the nurse explains to Jacob that "Sometimes when you get older [...] things you think on and wish on start to seem real. And then you believe them, and before you know it they're a part of your history [...]" (177). Later, Jacob reflects how he kept the secret that Rosie killed August from Marlena. He thinks, "At first I stayed silent to protect Rosie [...].In the entire history of our marriage, it was the only secret I kept from her [...]. With a secret like that, at some point the secret itself becomes irrelevant" (327). These passages suggest that memories are inherently flawed and subjective.

However, the rest of the novel fits in the neatly with the "Rosie killed him" theory, and the author even describes this incident in the book as being based on a factual account of an elephant killing a trainer after he threw a lit cigarette in her mouth. The interpretation is ultimately left up to the reader with the Marlena theory being extremely unlikely.

Awards and nominations


  • 2006, USA, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing, ISBN 1565124995, Pub date 26 May 2006, Hardback
  • 2006, USA, Thorndike Press, ISBN 0786290277, Pub date 15 December 2006, Large print hardback
  • 2007, USA, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing, ISBN 1565125606, Pub date 1 May 2007, Paperback
  • 2006, USA, Highbridge Audio, ISBN 1598870629, Pub date 1 June 2006, Audiobook

Film adaption

A film adaption of the novel will begin production in June 2010 from 20th Century Fox and is directed by Francis Lawrence. The film is produced by Gil Netter, Erwin Stoff and Andrew Tennenbaum and is written by Richard LaGravenese. Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson have been cast, Christoph Waltz is also in talks to star.[13][14]


External links


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