Before Jacob Jankowski fell into circus life, he was quite well-off — he was in school getting his veterinary degree; he was poised to take over his father’s practice; he was falling in love with Catherine. Then tragedy strikes. His parents are killed in a car accident, and due to a series of Depression-related circumstances, Jacob’s world collapses. Jacob learns that not only had his father mortgaged the family property to pay for his ivy league education, but his father also had no other income. He had been accepting payment from destitute farmers, in goods, rather than refusing to look after their sick animals. Jacob is left with nothing — no family, no home, no degree, no work. The only thing he can think to do is to run. By a twist of fate, he runs to the circus.
Because of his veterinary training, Jacob looks after the circus animals, but he does many other jobs as well. He maintains security, shovels out the animal stalls, feeds the tigers, and in addition, he looks after the health and welfare of all the animals. Then, he falls in love with a beautiful performer, Marlena, who happens to be married to the charming but cruel ringmaster, August. As we enter the novel, we become aware that Jacob’s story parallels the story of the circus. Both are aging and changing. Just as the old-time circus has declined during the last century, so too has Jacob’s position in his very large family. Both Jacob and the circus are about to be relegated to memory, but as Gruen emphasizes, neither should be disregarded.
This Bookclub-in-a-Box PDF discussion guide (77 pages) for Sara Gruen's novel Water for Elephants includes:
• Novel synopsis
• Author information
• Character analysis
• Focus points and themes
• Writing style and structure
• Important quotes from the novel
• Book club discussion questions
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