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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: A Book Review/Analysis

Angela is an avid reader who studied English Literature in college. She has a passion for the written word and loves literature.

I loved Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. It is a book I have recommended to everyone who has asked me what book I would recommend. It's one of the few books that everyone has come back to me saying, "Water for Elephants was so good!" I have to admit, when our book club picked this book, I thought it was going to be long and tedious. Even as I started it, I didn't have high hopes for Sara Gruen's novel, especially as I learned that the setting was a traveling circus filled with "freaks" and "midgets." Yet, Water for Elephants surprised me with its realism and rich history. Each of life's emotions fills this story as you go through a short period in one man's life, as he learns much about life, love, and himself.

The Beginning

The prologue sets the stage for the whole book, as you hear about the most tragic yet somehow justified moment in young Jacob's life. Although the narrative states precisely what happens, some details are amiss that only become enlightened in the book's last few chapters.

As the narrative truly begins, you then meet Jacob. A cantankerous ninety-year-old (or ninety-three-year-old) version of himself tells the story in the form of memories.

The memories begin with the most memorable moment in young Jacob Jankowski's life. He's a 23-year-old penniless, down-on-his-luck man, an Ivy League dropout studying to be a vet. After getting the devastating news, he runs away and accidentally joins a circus.

History Behind Water for Elephants

Something that astounded me most about Gruen's writing was how much research she did for the book. After I read this, I started doing a little research myself, because some of it seemed too incredible to be real. It wasn't long before I realized much of what she wrote about was true to life in that time frame and especially true for real live circuses.

Through her writing, she wrote about the stories she uncovered during her research. She also writes about what circuses were like before there were regulations on the treatment of animals and people. August's abuse of the animals was not unusual during this time.

Gruen chooses the Depression as her setting when prohibition and the economy are very real, terrible things. Then showed how people persevered and found themselves as a result.

She has also done a lot of research on circuses. During the prologue, she states that the band is playing stars and stripes. That was genuinely used as a code to all those in the circus that something has gone wrong.

How Water for Elephants Got Its Name

Water for Elephants is an unusual title. The first time Gruen references the title in the book is when Jacob realizes one of his fellow nursing home patients is telling a white lie about working for the circus. He says that he used to carry water for elephants. People believed this was an actual job, but Jacob had worked for a circus who knew better and called the man on it.

The title has little to do with the actual carrying water for elephants. An elephant drinks 25-75 gallons of water a day, far more than any man would be able to carry at any given time. One person even stated that "carrying water for elephants" is a phrase that means carrying a heavy load, much like carrying a secret that you can't tell even someone you love wholeheartedly, just as in the end Jacob does for his wife.

The Characters

The book contains many fanciful characters such as "midgets" and "freaks." These terms were acceptable in the circuses of that period. Despite their unique talents and gifts, Gruen writes these characters with very vivid real personalities. She does such a fantastic job developing each of these characters that your heart breaks and feels joy for them at times.

Jacob falls in love with Marlena, but their love is star-crossed. What good romance isn't? Aside from human love, he also falls for Rosie, an elephant. Both of Jacob's loves are the subjects of abuse by her bipolar husband and Marlena's manager. August is authentic in his outbursts and very similar to my experiences with people who have the disease.

It's a sad tale, though I will say it has a happy ending. I don't want to give too much away. Seriously though, it's a fantastic read!

Book Club Questions! Taken from

  • How would the novel be different if Gruen had only written about the younger Jacob, keeping the story linear and never describing Jacob’s life as an older man?
  • Did the chapters about the nursing home change how you think about older people? In what ways are the doctors and nurses condescending? How is Rosemary different? How do you treat older people?
  • In chapter two, the twenty-three-year-old Jacob starts his story by telling us he is a virgin. From the cooch tent to the erections the older Jacob gets when being bathed, sexuality is woven into the whole story. Why do you think Gruen added these details? What role does sexuality play in Water for Elephants?
  • When you first read the Prologue, who did you think murdered the man? Were you surprised by who the actual murderer was?
  • Why does Jacob get so mad about Mr. McGuinity lying about carrying water for elephants? Do you see any similarities in temperament between the young Jacob and the old Jacob?
  • There is an “us and them” mentality between performers and workers in the circus. How does Jacob bridge these two classes of people? Why does each group hate another group? Does the circus merely mirror society in an exaggerated way?
  • Are you satisfied with the end?
  • In the Author’s Note, Gruen writes that many of the details in the story are factual or come from circus workers’ anecdotes. These true stories include the hippo pickled in formaldehyde, the deceased fat lady being paraded through town, and an elephant who repeatedly pulled out her stake and stole lemonade. Gruen did extensive research before writing Water for Elephants. Was her story believable?
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© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz


Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on May 13, 2012:

They are intended for a book club, and no two people are going to have the same answers.

Sid on May 13, 2012:

Ya but where are thé answers

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 29, 2012:

I am glad i could help, but there is no replacement for reading the book

Kasper on March 27, 2012:

Thanks a lot Angela! I'm working on assignment for school, and this is the best analysis of the book I could find.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 02, 2012:

Not exactly. It's historically accurate as far as the circus's that's really how they were, but the characters are not real.

tieara on February 29, 2012:

is this story based on a true story?

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on February 19, 2012:

I'm so glad you discovered that! You really should read the book. It is great!

wj-writingjockey from Earth on January 16, 2012:

I have seen the movie 'water for elephants' and i never knew that a book of the same even existed until i read your nice hub. Now i know that the movie was actually based on the book 'water for elephant'. Thanks for sharing.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on December 14, 2010:

Yeah, it really does. Especially circus life back then.

susannah42 from Florida on December 14, 2010:

I read this book and really enjoyed it. It gives an insight into circus life that I never knew.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on November 08, 2010:

Well, I guess you would, but that wouldn't be someone's sole job. I hope you enjoy it! It's a great book!

Ireno Alcala from Bicol, Philippines on November 07, 2010:

If you're in the circus, you really have to bring water for the elephants being used as the highlights of the show.

I'm eager to read the book myself. Thanks for sharing, Michelle! :D

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on November 07, 2010:

Oh, that's great! You'll have to let me know what you think! Any suggestions from yourself for me?

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 07, 2010:

Angela, This sounds like a must have book and I probably would not have bought it if you hadn't written this hub. Thanks.

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