book by Sara Gruen
Annotation by Lee Stoops
Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants begins with an epigraph from Dr. Suess’s Horton Hatches the Egg about the unfailing faithfulness of elephants. What follows is a fast, colloquially-written prologue that ends in violent murder as remembered by an old man. Needless to say, after three pages, I was hooked.
Of course, the prologue is a flash of something to which the reader will eventually return. Chapter one establishes the pace and mystery of the book. Jacob Jankowski, an elderly man living in an assisted care facility. He’s not sure of his age (he’s either ninety or ninety-three), he has a difficult time remembering the names of those caring for him, and he spends more time reliving his youth in his mind than cogitating in the present. His memories are not flash-backs or recollections. When he’s narrating as twenty-three year-old Jacob, he’s truthfully telling the story as it happens.
““It was something alright. I remember it like yesterday. Hell, I remember it better than yesterday”” (324).
Gruen succeeded in the telling of this story in three ways: 1) the perspective of her narrator (the story is told in first person by Jacob, both at twenty-three and ninety (or ninety-three)) is believable both in the presentation of the prose and the reality of his voice and person; 2) the ease with which dialogue is delivered offers the reader true voices and personalities; 3) the story is engaging, mysterious, and well-paced throughout.
Jacob is twenty-three years old for eighty-five percent of the narrative. The story begins with his parents’ tragic death, his losing everything because of their debt, his failing out of an ivy league veterinary school (days before graduation), and his jumping a traveling circus train. It all happens in depression-era America. Chronicling the traveling circus’s tour, its people, and the violence and darkness that exists within the community, Gruen masterfully dictates it all through Jacob’s eyes. The descriptions of scenes were powerful, but it was the interior exposition of Jacob that was so authentic. His emotional development, his naïve struggle with the ethics, morals, and relationships of the other characters, and his inability to put intention to finding himself and his way brought gritty realism to the pages. An example (Jacob, speaking about August who is the “equestrian director and superintendent of animals:” his boss):
“I hate him. I hate him for being so brutal. I hate that I’m beholden to him. I hate that I’m in love with his wife and something damned close to that with the elephant. And most of all, I hate that I’ve let them both down. I don’t know if the elephant is smart enough to connect me to her punishment and wonder why I didn’t do anything to stop it, but I am and I do” (171).
Of course, the story is really about the elephant, Rosie, and August’s wife, Marlena, and what they mean to Jacob. I see it as a great feat that Gruen was able to, for lack of a better word, nail Jacob’s character.
Dialogue drives stories in a very specific, very powerful way. In a dialogue-heavy story, such as Water for Elephants, the story-teller can’t afford to leave any skill at home. Gruen’s dialogue in the story is present exactly as it needs to be. It’s charming in places, it’s colloquial in most (the language of the 1930’s traveling circus is one-of-a-kind), and it’s natural and flowing. There were places an aspiring writer may have been tempted to keep trying to make the characters speak. Gruen rejected that temptation, leaving just enough said. The story continues to weave seamlessly in and through the passages of conversation.
““Damn,” I say.
“What is it?” says Marlena.
I straighten up and reach for Silver Star’s foot. He leaves it firmly on the ground.
“Come on, boy,” I say, pulling on his hoof.
Eventually, he lifts it. The sole is bulging and dark, with a red line running around the edge. I set it down immediately.
“This horse is foundering,” I say.
“Oh dear God!” says Marlena, clapping a hand to her mouth.
“What?” says August. “He’s what?”
“Foundering,” I say. “It’s when the connective tissues between the hoof and the coffin bone are compromised and the coffin bone rotates toward the sole of the hoof.”
“In English, please. Is it bad?”
I glance at Marlena, who is still covering her mouth. “Yes,” I say.
“Can you fix it?”
“We can bed him up real thick, and try to keep him off his feet. Grass hay only and no grain. And no work.”
“But can you fix it?”
I hesitate, glancing quickly at Marlena. “Probably not.”
August stares at Silver Star and exhales through puffed cheeks” (171).
Not long after this exchange, the horse is put down, and then, because of lack of food or funds to buy any, and to the disgust of many, the dead horse is fed to the big cats. Gruen’s use of tags, vocal control, and character consistency in voicing gives the dialogue throughout the novel strength of form and progression of story. As a writer that loves and relies on dialogue, finding stories that use it so effectively is exciting.
Gruen’s story consists of darkness, mystery, and grittily precise use of sex, violence, and cruelty. But, these elements are only supplements to the overall story. The story is one of love; love in all its forms. It’s truth that Gruen brings to her fiction that drives Water for Elephants.