“The Most Spectacular Show on Earth”: Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen
“I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other” (5).
So Jacob Jankowski, the protagonist of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, says in the beginning of his story. Jacob is at a nursing home, where he is extremely unhappy with being forced to eat mushy food instead of real food – for example, like pot roast that his wife used to cook for him, “completely with leathery bay leaves” (8) – and with having no excitement in his day-to-day life where the “monotony of bingo and sing-alongs and ancient dusty people parked in the hallway in wheelchairs makes [him] long for death” (13).
One day, Jacob loses it when a newcomer named Joseph McGuinty, a retired lawyer, makes the following statement: “I used to carry water for the elephants” (9). Despite McGuinty’s growing frustration and anger, Jacob keeps on insisting that no, McGuinty had not carried water for the elephants, even when McGuinty pushes himself off his wheelchair to insist that yes, he had. McGuinty then falls to the ground, the nurses come, and Jacob ends up having to eat his meal in his room instead of in the dining room with the others.
But Jacob Jankowski had a valid reason for thinking McGuinty was lying. Jacob knew exactly what it meant to carry water for elephants because he himself had carried water for an elephant, named was Josie. Josie and Jacob had been part of a circus, called the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. And this elephant, Josie, had performed an act with a woman named Marlena. Marlena was a beautiful woman and Jacob fell in love with her, which was problematic because Marlena was married to a man named August, and everyone knew August was insane. Add to this the fact that the circus crew had a strict and binding hierarchy where stepping over the line meant you would easily be thrown off a train moving full-speed. But Jacob couldn’t help falling in love with Marlena. The first time he saw her, his heart had stopped because she looked exactly like Catherine Hale, a girl who was in his class at Cornell, whom he had been attracted to. But when both of Jacob’s parents died suddenly in a car crash, and their lawyer told Jacob that his parents had used all of their money for his tuition, therefore having no money and no property left to their names, Jacob had to nowhere to go. So, after leaving in the middle of his final exams in his last year of Cornell – where he could not even tell whether the test was written in English or in Polish – he decided to jump onto a train, and ended up putting himself right in the train of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
McGunity has no idea what it was like to be in the middle of “full-fledged stampeded” (308) where one could see “bits of chimp, orangutan, llama, zebra, lion, giraffe, camel, hyena, and horse…[c]reatures of every sort zigzag, bolt, scream, swing, gallop, grunt, and whinny” (308). There had been at least two men killed that night, even if one death was not the result of the stampede. And here is Joseph McGuinty, claiming that he used to carry water for the elephants. The nerve of him…
Gruen, Sara. Water for elephants: a novel. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007.