One evening, last week I sat down and I read this book. It probably took me about four hours to finish – so probably about five or six hours in total. I was fascinated by the history of the circus together with the present day adventures of the old man narrating the story. Usually I dislike books that have two stories being told concurrently, but not this time. The sections about the old man helped form an image of the young man and vice versa. I’m not old, but Sara Gruen describes the indignities that I dread with being old, especially the loss of independence and privacy:
She pops a disposable cone on a thermometer and sticks it in my ear. I get poked and prodded like this every morning. I’m like a piece of meat unearthed from the back of the fridge, suspect until proven otherwise.
Young Jacob runs away from Cornell during his final exams and ends up jumping on a train that belongs to the Benzini Brothers’ circus. Fortunately, they do not turn him off before finding out that he was almost a vet and so has skills they need. At the circus, he makes friends with Marlena, the horse shower and her husband, August, who turns out to be manic depressive if not schizophrenic too. Not forgetting the animals. Jacob’s relationship with animals is one of respect and sympathy. He considers them his equals; equal but different. He did not know true animal love until the circus adopted Rosie, the elephant. The relationship between Jacob, Marlena, August, and Rosie forms the crux of the historical story. At one point, having decided that he hated August because of his abuse of the animals especially of Rosie, Jacob finds it hard to maintain his hatred because:
It’s only when I catch Rosie actually purring under August’s loving ministrations that my conviction starts to crumble. and what I’m left looking at in its place is a terrible thing.
Maybe it was me. Maybe I wanted to hate him because I’m in love with his wife, and if that’s the case, what kind of man does that make me?
The historical part of the novel is set in the heart of the 1930s Depression. Initially, the Depression appears and disappears. It only affects circus life on the periphery, for example pay day when everyone is worried about who will get paid. Gradually, it seeps into everyday life and starts taking over. Men disappear, with the fear that they were red-lighted which means they were kicked of the moving train in the middle of the night. This adds to the tension in the book, playing with some of the subplots.
The book, on the whole, is positive and forward looking; probably because the present day Jacob is remembering his past, so you know he survives. That also gives the impression that the book will end bittersweet, but with clever twists in the tale, the novel really ends mostly happily.
A great touch is archival photographs of circus life before each chapter.