On May 26th of 2006, Sara Gruen published her third novel, Water for Elephants. This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the book and the tenth anniversary of the film adaptation.
The story–written during National Novel Writing Month–was met with unprecedented success and took the contemporary literature world by storm. The book was added to recommended reading lists for Advanced Placement exams while simultaneously banned from schools for its explicit sexual content and brutal descriptions of animal abuse. Just five years later, the book was adapted for film with a star-studded cast.
Although this novel falls under the historical fiction genre, this book has a quality of magic to it. The protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, feels this magic when he leaves his final exams at Cornell and stumbles into the circus train of the Benzini Brothers. With both parents dead and no money to his name, Jacob has nothing to lose by (literally) running away with the circus. But he soon discovers that what’s in front of the stage curtain does not match the darkness that lies behind it.
In comparison to the popular young adult fantasy novels of the time, this story depicted real individuals with real-life problems set during actual historical events. Throughout the novel, Gruen discusses various historical topics, such as the circus practices of the 20th century and why the elusive “Jake” drink paralyzed many Americans during The Great Depression. Gruen is known for her unwavering support for animal rights and wildlife conservation, and this book is no exception. But what makes this novel stand out are the parallels between many of the animals and humans. We have Jacob’s obvious connection with Rosie, the lead elephant at the Benzini circus, mirrored by his acquaintance with his nurse, Rosemary. There is also Camel, an older gentleman who helps Jacob find a job with the Benzini Brothers, and the mention of camels as animals present in the circus. In hindsight, it seems Gruen equates animals to humans because we are a part of the animal kingdom at the end of the day.
There is also the suggestion that how a human treats animals can resemble how they treat other humans. This theme is depicted by the ruthless ringmaster, August Rosenthul, and the circus’s owner, Uncle Al. Throughout the novel, both men abuse the animals and human employees of the circus. It is Jacob’s compassion and patience for Rosie the elephant (who only understands Polish) that saves her life from August’s brutal clutches. And it is at the hands of Uncle Al that Camel and Walter (a little person who Jacob befriends) are “red-lighted,” or thrown off the moving train.
With the rise in activism for both animal and human rights, this is an interesting novel to return to. Not only can readers learn about the history of circuses in America from this book, but they can also take into consideration the exploitation of both humans and animals during the 20th century. Animals that didn’t follow the “rules” set by humans were punished; similarly, Camel and Walter’s deaths are examples of Uncle Al clearing the circus of disabled individuals simply because he can.
It is also important to note that allegations against the film’s treatment of Tai, the elephant who played Rosie, made headlines around the time of the film’s release. However, according to The Hollywood Reporter, these allegations were proven false and the accompanying video of Tai’s abuse was proved to have been filmed during her time with previous caretakers. Both the American Humane Association and Twentieth Century Fox have spoken out against the abuse of animals and have confirmed that no animals were mistreated during the making of the film.
Give us your thoughts on Water for Elephants fifteen years later. Did you enjoy the book, the film, or both? How do you think we would perceive the story if it were published today? Let us know!