Like many people, I was saddened to hear that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is shutting down. Of course, I can’t say I was surprised by the news. There’s so much competition for people’s time and money, and so much of it can be accessed without leaving the house nowadays. I’ve seen the show, what person hasn’t?, but I know for a fact that my experience was distinctly different from the experience my mother had as a child, and especially from when my grandmother was a child.
I was very young and I barely recall anything. I’m quite certain it was held in a stadium or arena, rather than a tent outdoors. I remember standing in long lines on a concrete floor. I remember sitting high up and my mom pointing towards the floor where there were people and animals and things. That’s about it.
Still, what better way to mark the announcement of an ending era than to read a book or two celebrating it? That brings me to today’s book, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Like so many exceedingly popular books, I did not read this one when it initially came out. I remember that my mom had a copy, a pass-along book that I think she got from my grandmother and I think passed from her hands to mine and then to my sister’s. Between my mom and me though, there were a number of years spent on a shelf in the basement. I know I didn’t read it when it first became big, and I certainly didn’t read it when the movie came out. In fact, I have never seen the movie once in my life and intend to keep it that way. I’ve been told by such reliable sources as my grandmother that it was mediocre at best, and she has always regretted that the last movie my grandfather saw in theaters was not at all worth it.
I believe that I finally ended up reading Water for Elephants after tomorrow’s book: Wonder When You’ll Miss Me. Because it was also a circus environment, I became curious about this much more famous novel. And I was enthralled on that first read. So when my sister asked about it, I was happy to give her the pass-along book. I did regret that later, when I wanted to reread it. On the flip side, I was able to buy myself a brand new copy which would withstand far more abuse. Unfortunately, that means my version features the leads from the movie on the cover, instead of the simpler, more generic circus image of the old. I would care a lot less about the cover if it wasn’t oversized and therefore could be hidden by my book covers. I don’t usually think about it when I’m not reading it because I only see the spine on the shelf. So it’s just a passing annoyance.
The story is that of Jacob Jankowski and his experience with the Benzini Brothers most Spectactular Show on Earth. It’s also the story of Jacob in the nursing home seventy years later, remembering his youth more vividly than the previous day. It’s a fictional story, but there’s a number of notes and such in the back detailing the various true stories that Sara Gruen drew on to fabricate her novel. Each chapter also features a photograph from circus archives.
Traveling shows are communities unto themselves, and that’s what makes Water for Elephants such an entrancing read. It draws us into the community, teaches us the terminology, and allows us to peek behind the curtains. It also made me think about rewatching Dumbo the last time I saw it randomly on TV. Unfortunately, while I had more fun in some respects based on what I’d learned since the last viewing, it had been so long that I had forgotten how incredibly cruel the other elephants are to him. I couldn’t stand watching the bullying and had to turn it off.