By Chet Yarbrough
“Water for Elephants” is a story about the circus, being in love, and hard times. The narration is done with two voices for the main character, at ages 93 and 23. LeDoux’ and Jones’ and their distinctive phrasing make Sara Gruen’s hero unforgettable.
Age transition in the story is seamless because life is in the spoken moment. The listener is there with the hero. He is “young” Jacob Jankowski walking out of a neighbor’s vegetable garden with a four legged Polish elephant. Or, he is tottering “old” Jacob Jankowski walking toward a modern circus tent with a four post aluminum walker.
Sara Gruen introduces the hero and the listener recognizes what it means to grow old. “I am 90, or 93, I can’t remember which”. Loss of dignity marks old age with a poignant Jankowski complaint about not being asked about what he wants when given only what others think he needs.
Water for Elephants is a great title for a story about being old and being young. The meaning of the title is revealed as the story unfolds. A minor character says he worked for a circus and “carried water for elephants”. He may or may not have worked for a circus but he did not carry water for elephants. He believes he did but he is old; he has forgotten.
When one is young and inexperienced, he does not know an elephant is so big and drinks so much water, it takes a hose to provide water for elephants. Gruen writes that Circus managers often kidded young circus workers about carrying water for elephants.
Life happens; a 23 year old Jankowski is about to graduate from Veterinary school when his parents die in a car crash. In the 1929 crash of the car and the American economy, Jankowski’s life shatters. He is mentally broken; unable to take his final Veterinary exam. He has no money; his family is gone; he hops a train to anywhere, and the story progresses at the speed of life and memory.
“Water for Elephants” has a beautiful ending; not to be missed.