Sunday, January 9, 2011

Thoughts on a book: Water for Elephants

It’s a long time since I read a book from cover to cover and let the time drift... but this morning I woke early enough I thought to read just a chapter or two before making the most of the cooler weather.  Well, strike that out for a start.

Water for Elephants has been sitting on the pile for a month or two, getting pushed under other more clamorous reads, until today. After a humid night I woke early, retrieved the top book from the closest pile, and planned to read a chapter before rising.  Suddenly it was time for morning tea - breakfast long passed – and two cats sat in the bedroom doorway silently waiting for me to leave the room and perhaps get as far as the kitchen to the fridge..............

Jacob Jankowski tells his story from the perspective of the walking frame which at ninety or is it ninety three (see the opening lines of Ch 1) he grasps with the thin and wrinkled age-spotted hands he barely recognises. The bare bones: how he met his wife and started his family, how he begrudges ending his days in “assisted living” accommodation. 

This is the tale of a grieving young man running from the emptiness of a life suddenly bereft of family.  It is 1931 and homelessness and unemployment are the norm across middle America; Jacob has no home, no friends, no work and must rely on luck and pragmatism to survive.  In desperation he flings himself at a passing train in the hope that wherever it takes him must be a better place than where he is, and finds himself onboard the circus train that freights the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth across the country.  It is as well that his almost completed college degree is in veterinary science.

In three months of eventful journeying across America, Jacob carts buckets of food for the big cats and camels, tends to horses, dogs and a giraffe, shares a wagon with a clown, falls disastrously in love, drinks large amounts of prohibited whiskey and discovers in himself the same love for animals that was to have underpinned E. Jankowski & Son, Doctors of Veterinary Medicine a lifetime before.  That this part of his life has a happy ending, not revealed here, is proof that good things do indeed come to good people.   

What I appreciated most were the insights into life revealed by Jacob’s interactions with his nurse, and how easily we take away the independence of a person in tiny increments, because its quicker, easier and more convenient than the alternative of asking, negotiating, acquiescing, humouring and respecting the individual. Vignettes of life in Jacob's present came every couple of chapters, sprinkled throughout the book much like the engaging photographs of circuses of the time, and I liked these as much as the tale that lead to them.

Now what’s for lunch?

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.  Allen & Unwin 2006

1 comment:

  1. It's been a while (pre-blog) since I read this one, but you do a good job of describing Jacob's situation without giving too much away. Great review!


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