Water For Elephants Summary

Sara Gruen

Water For Elephants

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Water For Elephants Summary

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Water for Elephants is the New York Times best-selling debut novel by Sara Gruen. She wrote the book as part of National Novel Writing Month. Gruen transports us into the world of a third-rate traveling circus during the Great Depression. It is a world filled with a menagerie of exotic animals, midgets, freaks, performers, and a sadistic circus boss.

Jacob Jankowski, a man now in his nineties, lives a nursing home. As a young man, he joined the circus, the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. In his job caring for exotic animals, he forged a special human-animal bond with an elephant. In a series of flashbacks, Jacob recounts this period of his life.

Gruen also writes about Jacob’s present-day life as a nonagenarian in a nursing home. Jacob hates everything about living in a nursing home. He is miserable. He is told what to eat and what to do. The nurses do not treat him well and he dislikes his fellow residents. He escapes in his mind by thinking about his time with the circus. He shares some of his story with a kind nurse named Rosemary.

As a twenty-three-year-old man, Jacob is in his final days at Cornell’s Veterinary School. He is preparing to join his father’s veterinary practice. Jacob is forced to drop out of school when his parents are killed in a car crash. In addition to being orphaned, Jacob suddenly becomes homeless and penniless. His parents mortgaged their home to pay for his Ivy League education.

In the middle of the night, Jacob jumps onto a train. By fate, the train is home to a circus, the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. The circus is owned by Uncle Al, a violent and abusive man quick to punish his workers. Uncle Al regularly threatens to punish his workers by giving them the red light. This is a very severe punishment where one is thrown off of a moving train as it passes over a trestle. One most likely faces death or becomes seriously injured. The best-case scenario is that one is fired and does not receive wages.

Jacob befriends Carmel, a circus veteran, who persuades everyone not to throw Jacob off the train. Carmel also helps Jacob find menial odd jobs with the circus. Jacob also becomes friends with Walter, a dwarf known as Kinko in the circus, and his Jack Russell terrier Queenie. Walter and Jacob share the same train quarters.

Jacob soon convinces the owner of the circus, Uncle Al, to hire him to care for the circus animals. He develops a special bond with the elephant Rosie. The elephant was recently purchased from another circus. She will not follow anyone’s commands until Jacob, who is Polish-American, discovers that Rosie only understands Polish.

Jacob works for August, a complicated man who is brutal, charming, and generous. August, the equestrian director, mistreats the animals in his care and the people around him. August is married to one of the circus stars, the beautiful Marlena, who performs on horses.

Even though she is off limits, Jacob falls in love with Marlena. This endangers both of their jobs and their lives. The volatile August, who we learn is a paranoid schizophrenic, beats Marlena when he becomes suspicious of her relationship with Jacob. To protect herself, Marlena leaves August and lives in hotels when she is not performing. When Marlena discovers that she is pregnant, she stays away from August.

Uncle Al threatens to red light both Walter and Camel unless Jacob can happily reunite August and Marlena. The circus is losing money, and Uncle Al will use any excuse to red light workers.

Jacob decides that he must kill August to protect himself and Marlena. He climbs onto the roof of the moving train with a knife between his teeth. Instead of killing August, he leaves the knife on August’s pillow. While Jacob is on the roof, Walter and Camel are red-lighted. If Jacob had also been the room, he would have shared the same fate.

Red-lighted workers who managed to survive come back and release the animals during a performance. During the stampede, the elephant Rosie, who has been horribly treated by August, drives a stake into his head. August’s body is then trampled in the stampede. Jacob is the only witness to August’s death.

Jacob and Marlena are finally free. The circus is shut down. They save as many of the circus animals as possible, including Rosie. Together, they join the Ringling Brothers Circus for seven years. They marry and have five children together. They later settle in Chicago, where Jacob becomes the chief veterinarian of the Brookfield Zoo.

Back in the present day, we learn that Marlena died a few years before Jacob moved into the nursing home. Jacob escapes the nursing home to visit a circus that comes to town. His son is supposed to take him but does not show up. At the circus, Jacob meets the manager Charlie, who treats Jacob kindly and with respect.

Jacob begs Charlie to allow him to stay with the circus and earn his way selling tickets. The novel ends with Jacob running away from his life at the nursing home to join the circus for the second time in his life.