Thursday, February 26, 2009

Book Review: Water for Elephants

I have a thing about fog. While grey skies in Michigan take me into a hole that is difficult to deal with, fog intrigues me. Maybe it is its ethereal nature, as if by poking my finger into it the greyness disappears like air in a balloon. Maybe it is the calmness that it invokes.

Southwest Florida had a rare dose of extended fog early this crawled in off the Gulf late one afternoon while I was driving home from the north and thought maybe a gigantic fire was raging in a palmetto forest but I could not smell smoke. It was like an opaque cocoon that both comforted and unnerved me and it didn't roll back out to sea for five more days.

About that time I finished reading Sara Gruen's WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, released in 2006,
which I would recommend to anyone. It is a delightfully romantic story set in the last depression
(to separate it from our current one!) told from the memory of 93 year old Jacob Jankowski whose parents are killed when he is finishing Veterinary School in New York. Though he had planned to join his father's thriving veterinary practice, Jacob learned not only that his parents had mortgaged everything they owned to send him to school but that even his father's practice was dissembled to pay their debts.

Penniless and unable to concentrate on his final exams Jacob runs off to seek solace and winds up on the train of a disfunctional circus at a time when any job at all, no matter how horrific, was worth keeping.

For seven years Jacob found his love of all creatures, his high moral standards and his passion for Marlena at life-threatening odds with his superiors whose personality issues ranged from
wanton narcissism to murderous greed.

Jacob is now a spunky old man whose mind is stronger than his body and who rails against the inane rules of the nursing home he calls home. He rarely recognizes his infrequent family visitors but remembers in finite detail his days in the circus. Sara Gruen deftly carries the story from Jacob's current frustrations back to his luscious recollections of what once was. His longing for his beloved Marlena, a beautiful equestrian and star of the show whom he eventually marries but who passes before him, sugar coats his memories that are not always so pleasant.

The third dominant character is Rosie, an elephant purchased for her promise to redeem the circus's failing revenues and who placidly endures her terrible abuse until her own sense compassion is uncontrollably violated.

What endeared me to this story was Sara's wonderful understanding of people and what motivates them to make bad choices. She juxtaposes horrendous cruelty against unbounded compassion but the last page left me with confidence that goodness is master and that all creatures, animal and human, deserve and benefit from it. Her research into a world of human and animal oddities that is foreign to most of us is thorough and her sense of humor softens the sharp edges of an often wicked world.

The circus world is a microcosm from our past but its 'rubes' and its stars teach lessons in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS that are universal and current with a pace that grabbed me within the first few pages and held me captive until the end.

Getting back to the the fifth day it began to unnerve me. The sun would peek out midday and then recede to let the greyness return. Maybe it was just to remind me of what I 'd escaped for two months of winter. Or, maybe it was to reassure me that fog is like a good read or the healing time spent writing--a lacuna that both embraces and tries to understand the sharp edges of the present.