During the past week I read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen for the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge. Water for Elephants was another book that I had on my list that was one Oprah's Book Club books.
As with the other book, I was not disappointed with this one. Once I read the prologue, I was hooked. There was no way that I could not finish reading this book.
The story revolves around Jacob Jankowski, a 93 year old man who is residing in an assisted living facility, who once worked on circuses for almost seven years. He never discussed his life in the circus for 70 years until a circus came to town to set up across the street from the facility. One of the residents claimed he had worked in the circus and brought water to the elephants. This set Jacob off because he knew it wasn't true, and it began the unfolding of a story that took place during his youth.
Jacob, an Ivy League dropout who had been studying to become a veterinarian, was orphaned and penniless when he jumped a freight train in the dark, and in that instant, he transformed his future. By morning, he was working as a veterinarian with the Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. By evening, he fell in love with one of the performers who was married to one of the show's animal trainer who was a paranoid schizophrenic.
The story takes place during the uncertainty and chaotic time of the Depression and Prohibition. It's a time when the circus is a refuge of sequins and a dream world for children and adults alike. Behind the glamour and excitement, though, lies a darker world, where both animals and men are dispensable.
Conceptually I have an understanding about Prohibition. However, I did not realize that there was a risk when drinking homemade alcohol. One of the workers named Camel was having trouble standing and walking. Eventually, he realized he was becoming paralyzed. One of the other workers, Walter, explained to Jacob that Camel had "jake leg." It was also called jake walk or limber leg.
Basically, someone made a big batch of Jamaica ginger extract (or jake) and put plasticizers (cresol compound) in it. They did it "to get around the regulations that require that Jamaica ginger extract be rendered unpalatable so it won't be used as an alcoholic beverage."
The Jamaica ginger extract went out all over the country and when someone drank it they would be paralyzed. It started anytime within two weeks of drinking the alcohol. Apparently tens of thousands of people were paralyzed as a result of drinking it.
Jacob realizes how fortunate - and close - he was to ending up like Camel: Camel had offered him some "brackish liquid...on the first day on the show" but he had refused.
The most difficult part of this book for me was how the animals were treated - especially the elephant. Hearing how they were fed and punished made my stomach turn in some parts of the book. I cannot even begin to imagine the cruelty the animals that became part of the circus had to endure. What a miserable life.
The other part was how the workers and some of the performers were thought of by those in the circus' management and upper-level workers. I had never heard of "red-lighting" before - how workers were thrown off the circus trains while they were moving in the night if it was determined that the person was of no value to the circus any longer.
Water for Elephants gave a glimpse into a world that no longer exists in terms of the human oddities show. I do remember when I was younger seeing one of these types of shows at the Minnesota State Fair. This would have been in the 1970s and early 1980s. Apparently back in the Depression, there was a wider variety of people who had unusual physical characteristics.
The narrator’s transition from the young circus veterinarian, to the elderly, cantankerous nursing home resident is a well-crafted, bi-lateral view. Whether in his twenties admiring beautiful, equestrian performer, Marlena and caring for the animals he loved so dearly or in his nineties mulling over where to have breakfast and the indignities of old age, the quick wit comes through loud and clear.
One thing that Jacob said in the nursing home was something that reminded me of my mother and thoughts that she has echoed at different times during recent years. "My platitudes don't hold their interest and I can hardly blame them for that. My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik - that's all ancient history now. But what else do I have to offer? Nothing happens to me anymore. That's the reality of getting old, and i guess that's really the crux of the matter. I'm not ready to be old yet. But I shouldn't complain..."
He also said that he no longer liked looking in a mirror. One day, as he was brushing his hair, he said he froze "...at the sight of my old hand on my old head. I lean close and open my eyes very wide, trying to see beyond the sagging flesh. It's not good. Even when I look straight into the milky blue eyes, I can't find myself anymore. When did I stop being me?
It's interesting because I've often had similar thoughts as I've aged - about not recognizing the person looking at me in the mirror. Often times, like Jacob, I avoid looking in the mirror. My reflection is not the person I remember I am.
Water for Elephants had such a range of every conceivable emotion. It was beautifully written and very engrossing. It is a story that pulls ones into a captivating world, where fact and fiction combine. The characters are so clearly described that they can easily be pictured. This book was an honest, moving glimpse into a world filled with excitement, cruelty, adventure, and challenges...and one that I will remember for a very long time.