BOOK REVIEW: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants

** spoiler alert ** Like most runaway bestsellers, Water for Elephants was a disappointment. Set against the backdrop freewheeling 1930s traveling circus, its the story of the romance between Jacob, an almost-veterinarian and Marlena, a horse trainer.

The romance angle already loses points from me. I find relationship fiction to be incredibly boring. Although the writing is a notch above many, at its heart it’s still the same old song and dance, with a flat-as-cardboard leading female role.

Like most runaway bestsellers, Water for Elephants was a disappointment. Set against the backdrop freewheeling 1930s traveling circus, its the story of the romance between Jacob, an almost-veterinarian and Marlena, a horse trainer.

The romance angle already loses points from me. I find relationship fiction to be incredibly boring. Although the writing is a notch above many, at its heart it’s still the same old song and dance, with a flat-as-cardboard leading female role.

The animal angle is especially what interested me. The main animal star is Rosie, a trained elephant who is deemed worthless and dumb until our hero discovers the secret of reaching her. The bull hook is described, along with its more unpleasant uses by cruel trainers:

[Rosie] has learned to follow August from the elephant car to the menagerie tent, and in return for that he has stopped beating the hell out of her. Instead, she trudges alongside him, and he walks with the bull hook snagged firmly in the flesh behind her front leg.

and

[T]he distraught listeners could still make out the hollow thud of a bull hook hitting flesh, again and again and again.

The remaining men found Rosie lying on her side, quivering, her foot still chained to a stake.

These are indeed powerful scenes, and taken at face value might make a reader think twice about patronizing a circus. However, a careful reading reveals that the circus employee who abuses Rosie is a madman, unable to contain the rage he dishes out equally to man and beast. Gruen ends up conforming her story to the arguments set forth by animal use industries every time an embarrassing undercover video comes to light: it’s just a few bad apples, it’s not the industry as a whole. Indeed, the basic idea of confining wild animals to traveling shows is questioned only once, when the author expresses sympathy for a polar bear stuck in a blazing hot tent, noting that it’s nothing like his former Arctic home. The animals’ menagerie cages are renamed “dens”: I’m unsure if this is circus lingo or the author is doing a bit of glossing-over. I did learn that in the circus world, elephants (both male and female) are called “bulls,” the origin of the term “bull hook,” I’m supposing.

Many animal advocates have hailed this book, but I can’t for the life of me understand why. Ringling Bros., the only modernly recognizable circus in the book, is depicted as the Holy Grail. At the end of the book, when the fictional Benzini Bros. circus falls apart, the hero and heroine depart for Ringling (which is described as a “real Sunday School outfit”) along with Rosie and several other marooned animals in tow—and live happily ever after. (Many of the vintage photos in the book are courtesy of Ringling Bros., so I doubt she wanted to upset them.) The end of the book has Jacob the elderly widower being wheeled into a visiting modern day circus, much to his delight. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Water for Elephants actually prompted a few ticket sales for Ringling or other animal-using circuses.

I suspected as much early on, when I read a newspaper fluff piece about the release of WFE. The author was gushing about visiting circuses and pouring through Ringling Bros. archives, with a few asides here and there about her “love for animals.” It seemed to me to be the sort of love for animals found at cattle auctions and greased-pig contests.

The copy I read for my book group included a “P.S.” section with an author interview. The author discussed how suspicious to outsiders circus folk are, because of “people coming after them.” When the interviewer asked her who these people were, she stated “PETA, for the use of animals in the circus.” I cringed at that one, because while PETA is a much-disliked organization, they most certainly aren’t the only voices speaking up. The use of wild animals in circuses is roundly criticized across the animal advocacy spectrum, even among conservative groups like the ASPCA and Animal Welfare Institute.

In conclusion, Water for Elephants was a book that displayed an author indebted to the circus community for her information, choosing to toe the company line. It’s not an animal advocacy book, and it’s not terribly good as a novel, either.

(review originally appeared at goodreads.com)

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Lane Eades
    Oct 24, 2011 @ 21:43:32

    It?s laborious to search out knowledgeable individuals on this matter, however you sound like you realize what you?re speaking about! Thanks

    Reply

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