Water for elephants, p.1
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       Water for Elephants, p.1
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           Sara Gruen
Water for Elephants


  "Lively with historical detail and unexpected turns. . . . Water for Elephants is a rich surprise, a delightful gem springing from a fascinating footnote to history that absolutely deserved to be mined."

  --The Denver Post

  "So compelling, so detailed and vivid, that I couldn't bear to be torn away from it for a single minute."

  --Chicago Tribune

  "Gruen unearths a lost world with her rich and surprising portrayal of life in a traveling circus in the '30s. An emotional tale that will please history buffs--and others."


  "[An] arresting new novel. . . . With a showman's expert timing, [Gruen] saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale. . . . Water for Elephants resembles stealth hits like The Giant's House, by Elizabeth McCracken, or The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism."

  --The New York Times Book Review

  "Sara Gruen has written a rare book that is a great story, well written and bearing one of the happiest endings you will ever read."

  --Rona Brinlee, NPR's Morning Edition

  "[This] sprightly tale has a ringmaster's crowd-pleasing pace."

  --Entertainment Weekly

  "Gritty, sensual and charged with dark secrets involving love, murder and a majestic, mute heroine (Rosie the Elephant)."


  "You'll get lost in the tatty glamour of Gruen's meticulously researched world, from spangled equestrian pageantry and the sleazy side show to an illfated night at a Chicago speak-easy."

  --The Washington Post

  "[A] riveting story. . . . Gruen is an old-fashioned storyteller, who, in keeping with John Updike's blueprint for fiction, 'can keep an organized mass of images and characters.'"

  --The Toronto Globe and Mail

  "Sara Gruen offers love, drama and thrills under the big top. Only the most hardened of audience members will be able to resist."

  --The Tampa Tribune

  "A fascinating setting and a richly anecdotal story that is enjoyable right up to the final, inevitable revelation."

  --The Onion

  "Gruen sets her story among the freaks and geeks and captive animals of a traveling circus during the Great Depression. It's a good move. . . . She ratchets up the tension bit by tiny bit, luring us into the weird world of the roustabout and the candy butcher, the fat lady and the cooch coach."

  --Veronique De Turenne, NPR's Day to Day

  "Gruen performs a double trick in her novel: She gives an engrossing picture of circus life as well as a taste of what it's like to grow old."

  --Minneapolis Star Tribune

  "A beautiful book."

  --John Searles, CBS's The Early Show

  "A piercing look at Depression-era circus life, where violence, laughter managed to coexist. . . . Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants captures the sounds, smells and sights of the circus. . . . Delicious."

  --The Charlotte Observer

  "Novelist Sara Gruen sweeps her readers off their feet in the opening pages of Water For Elephants--and doesn't let go until she deposits them at the end of her fantastic tale of passion, madness and fancy. . . . The last notes of Water for Elephants linger long after the book ends. The alternating glamour and squalor of the circus world Gruen expertly conjures may truly be one of the greatest shows."

  --The Grand Rapids Press

  "You need this elephant in your life. . . . Water for Elephants is a keeper."

  --Baton Rouge Journal

  "Jacob's search for lost time is vivid and atmospheric, his story told with passion and an eye for the curious and entertaining detail."

  --Bookmarks magazine

  "A love letter to a colorful but terrifying past and an exciting story from cover to cover. . . . This is sheer fun."

  --Richmond Times-Dispatch

  "Endlessly surprising and superior in its attention to detail, the novel is the unknown adventure saga we can't believe we've never heard."

  --The Kansas City Star

  "Vivid, riveting, and surprisingly poignant."


  "A rich, rolling epic of a story. It's like those circus posters of days gone by: 'You'll laugh, you'll cry, you won't believe your eyes. Step forward ladies and gentlemen.' And indeed you should."

  --Independent Weekly

  "Water for Elephants vividly and concisely brings this lost world to life."

  --Columbus Dispatch

  "Old-fashioned and endearing, this is an enjoyable, fast-paced story."

  --Library Journal

  "Lovely and mesmerizing."

  --Kirkus Reviews

  "[A] page-turner. . . . Gruen skillfully humanizes midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book."

  --Publishers Weekly

  "Gorgeous, brilliant, and superbly plotted, Water for Elephants swept me into the world of the circus during the Depression, and it did not let me go until the very end. I don't think it has let me go, even now. Sara Gruen has a voice to rival John Irving's, and I am hopelessly, unabashedly in love with this book. Read it."

  --Joshilyn Jackson, author of Gods in Alabama

  "So much more than a tale about a circus, Water for Elephants is a compelling journey not only under the big top, but into the protagonist's heart. Sara Gruen uses her talent as a writer to bring that world alive for the reader: I could smell it, taste it, feel every word of it. This is a fiction reader's dream come true."

  --Jeanne Ray, author of Julie and Romeo Get Lucky

  "The circus, the Great Depression, a complex elephant, equally complex love, the mists and twists of memory articulated in the utterly winning voice of a very old man who's seen it all: these are the irresistible elements of Water for Elephants. Sara Gruen has written an utterly transporting novel richly full of the stuff of life."

  --Robert Olen Butler, author of From Where You Dream

  "An entirely original, captivating story of finding love in a down-at-the-heels traveling circus in the Great Depression. Sara Gruen writes with great tenderness and breathtaking drama, which makes the novel impossible to put down."

  --Stephanie Cowell, author of Marrying Mozart

  "In this thrilling, romantic story set in a traveling circus in the 1930s, Sara Gruen has a big top's worth of vivid characters and an exhilarating narrative that kept me up all night. From the perseverance of a terrier named Queenie to the charm of Rosie the elephant, this masterpiece of storytelling is a book about what animals can teach people about love."

  --Susan Cheever, author of My Name Is Bill




  Published by


  Post Office Box 2225

  Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225

  a division of


  225 Varick Street

  New York, New York 10014

  (c) 2006 by Sara Gruen. All rights reserved.

  First paperback edition, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, April 2007.

  Originally published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 2006.

  Printed in the United States of America.

  Design by Jacky Woolsey.

  For permission to reprint photographs, grateful acknowledgment is made to the following: pages xii, 48, 90, 112, 142, 160, 220, 260, 290, and 312 courtesy of the Collection of the Ringling Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida; pages 30, 178, and 196 courtesy of the Pfening Archives, Columbus, Ohio; page 70 courtesy of Ken Harck Archives; pages 128 and 238 courtesy of Timothy Tegge, Tegge Circus Archives, Baraboo, Wisc
onsin; page 14 courtesy of Barbara Fox McKellar.

  This is a work of fiction. While, as in all fiction, the literary perceptions and insights are based on experience, all names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. No reference to any real person is intended or should be inferred.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Gruen, Sara.

  Water for elephants : a novel / by Sara Gruen.--1st ed.

  p. cm.

  ISBN-13: 978-1-56512-499-8 (HC)

  1. Circus--Fiction. 2. Depressions--Fiction. 3. Circus performers--Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3607.R696W38 2006

  813'.6--dc22 2005052700

  ISBN-13: 978-1-56512-560-5 (PB)

  1 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  First Paperback Edition




  I am indebted to the following people for their contributions to this book:

  To the fantabulous team at Algonquin, including Chuck Adams, Michael Taeckens, Aimee Rodriguez, Katherine Ward, Elisabeth Scharlatt, and Ina Stern. A very special shout-out to Saint Craig of Popelars, who saw something special and made booksellers believe. To all of you, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

  To my first readers, Karen Abbott, Maggie Dana, Kristy Kiernan, Maureen Ogle, Kathryn Puffett (who happens to be my mother), and Terence Bailey (who happens to be my father), for their love and support and for talking me off the ledge at regular intervals.

  To Gary C. Payne, for answering my questions on all things circus, offering anecdotes, and checking my manuscript for accuracy.

  To Fred D. Pfening III, Ken Harck, and Timothy Tegge, for graciously allowing me to use photographs from their collections. Special thanks to Fred for reading and helping me fine-tune the text.

  To Heidi Taylor, assistant registrar at the Ringling Museum of Art, for helping me track down and secure the rights to various photographs, and to Barbara Fox McKellar, for allowing me to use her father's photograph.

  To Mark and Carrie Kabak, both for their hospitality and for introducing me to Mark's former charges at the Kansas City Zoo.

  To Andrew Walaszek, for providing and checking Polish translations.

  To Keith Cronin, both for valuable criticisms and for coming up with a title.

  To Emma Sweeney, for continuing to be all I could ask for in an agent.

  And finally, to my husband, Bob--my love and greatest champion.

  I meant what I said, and I said what I meant . . .

  An elephant's faithful--one hundred per cent!

  --THEODOR SEUSS GEISEL, Horton Hatches the Egg, 1940




  Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate. The cook was behind the counter, scraping his griddle with the edge of a spatula. He had turned off the fryer some time ago, but the odor of grease lingered.

  The rest of the midway--so recently writhing with people--was empty but for a handful of employees and a small group of men waiting to be led to the cooch tent. They glanced nervously from side to side, with hats pulled low and hands thrust deep in their pockets. They wouldn't be disappointed: somewhere in the back Barbara and her ample charms awaited.

  The other townsfolk--rubes, as Uncle Al called them--had already made their way through the menagerie tent and into the big top, which pulsed with frenetic music. The band was whipping through its repertoire at the usual earsplitting volume. I knew the routine by heart--at this very moment, the tail end of the Grand Spectacle was exiting and Lottie, the aerialist, was ascending her rigging in the center ring.

  I stared at Grady, trying to process what he was saying. He glanced around and leaned in closer.

  "Besides," he said, locking eyes with me, "it seems to me you've got a lot to lose right now." He raised his eyebrows for emphasis. My heart skipped a beat.

  Thunderous applause exploded from the big top, and the band slid seamlessly into the Gounod waltz. I turned instinctively toward the menagerie because this was the cue for the elephant act. Marlena was either preparing to mount or was already sitting on Rosie's head.

  "I've got to go," I said.

  "Sit," said Grady. "Eat. If you're thinking of clearing out, it may be a while before you see food again."

  That moment, the music screeched to a halt. There was an ungodly collision of brass, reed, and percussion--trombones and piccolos skidded into cacophony, a tuba farted, and the hollow clang of a cymbal wavered out of the big top, over our heads and into oblivion.

  Grady froze, crouched over his burger with his pinkies extended and lips spread wide.

  I looked from side to side. No one moved a muscle--all eyes were directed at the big top. A few wisps of hay swirled lazily across the hard dirt.

  "What is it? What's going on?" I said.

  "Shh," Grady hissed.

  The band started up again, playing "Stars and Stripes Forever."

  "Oh Christ. Oh shit!" Grady tossed his food onto the table and leapt up, knocking over the bench.

  "What? What is it?" I yelled, because he was already running away from me.

  "The Disaster March!" he screamed over his shoulder.

  I jerked around to the fry cook, who was ripping off his apron. "What the hell's he talking about?"

  "The Disaster March," he said, wrestling the apron over his head. "Means something's gone bad--real bad."

  "Like what?"

  "Could be anything--fire in the big top, stampede, whatever. Aw sweet Jesus. The poor rubes probably don't even know it yet." He ducked under the hinged door and took off.

  Chaos--candy butchers vaulting over counters, workmen staggering out from under tent flaps, roustabouts racing headlong across the lot. Anyone and everyone associated with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth barreled toward the big top.

  Diamond Joe passed me at the human equivalent of a full gallop.

  "Jacob--it's the menagerie," he screamed. "The animals are loose. Go, go!"

  He didn't need to tell me twice. Marlena was in that tent.

  A rumble coursed through me as I approached, and it scared the hell out of me because it was on a register lower than noise. The ground was vibrating.

  I staggered inside and met a wall of yak--a great expanse of curly-haired chest and churning hooves, of flared red nostrils and spinning eyes. It galloped past so close I leapt backward on tiptoe, flush with the canvas to avoid being impaled on one of its crooked horns. A terrified hyena clung to its shoulders.

  The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its place was a roiling mass of spots and stripes--of haunches, heels, tails, and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying. A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat--BOOM. The llama hit the ground, its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star. Chimps screamed and chattered, swinging on ropes to stay above the cats. A wild-eyed zebra zigzagged too close to a crouching lion, who swiped, missed, and darted away, his belly close to the ground.

  My eyes swept the tent, desperate to find Marlena. Instead I saw a cat slide through the connection leading to the big top--it was a panther, and as its lithe black body disappeared into the canvas tunnel I braced myself. If the rubes didn't know, they were about to find out. It took several seconds to come, but come it did--one prolonged shriek followed by another, and then another, and then the whole place exploded with the thunderous sound of bodies trying to shove past other bodies and off the stands. The band screeched to a halt for a second time, and this time stayed silent. I shut my eyes: Please God let them leave by the back end. Please God don't let them try to
come through here.

  I opened my eyes again and scanned the menagerie, frantic to find her. How hard can it be to find a girl and an elephant, for Christ's sake?

  When I caught sight of her pink sequins, I nearly cried out in relief--maybe I did. I don't remember.

  She was on the opposite side, standing against the sidewall, calm as a summer day. Her sequins flashed like liquid diamonds, a shimmering beacon between the multicolored hides. She saw me, too, and held my gaze for what seemed like forever. She was cool, languid. Smiling even. I started pushing my way toward her, but something about her expression stopped me cold.

  That son of a bitch was standing with his back to her, red-faced and bellowing, flapping his arms and swinging his silver-tipped cane. His high-topped silk hat lay on the straw beside him.

  She reached for something. A giraffe passed between us--its long neck bobbing gracefully even in panic--and when it was gone I saw that she'd picked up an iron stake. She held it loosely, resting its end on the hard dirt. She looked at me again, bemused. Then her gaze shifted to the back of his bare head.

  "Oh Jesus," I said, suddenly understanding. I stumbled forward, screaming even though there was no hope of my voice reaching her. "Don't do it! Don't do it!"

  She lifted the stake high in the air and brought it down, splitting his head like a watermelon. His pate opened, his eyes grew wide, and his mouth froze into an O. He fell to his knees and then toppled forward into the straw.

  I was too stunned to move, even as a young orangutan flung its elastic arms around my legs.

  So long ago. So long. But still it haunts me.

  I DON'T TALK MUCH about those days. Never did. I don't know why--I worked on circuses for nearly seven years, and if that isn't fodder for conversation, I don't know what is.

  Actually I do know why: I never trusted myself. I was afraid I'd let it slip. I knew how important it was to keep her secret, and keep it I did--for the rest of her life, and then beyond.

  In seventy years, I've never told a blessed soul.


  I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.

  When you're five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I'm twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It's a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I'm--you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you're not. You're thirty-five. And then you're bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it's decades before you admit it.

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