Water for Elephants

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Water for Elephants
Water for elephants.jpg
AuthorSara Gruen
Cover artistCharles Mason/Getty Images
CountryUnited States of America
GenreHistorical romance novel
PublisherAlgonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing
Publication date
26 May 2006 (1st edition)
Media typePrint
Pages331 (first edition)
ISBN1-56512-499-5 (first edition)
813/.6 22
LC ClassPS3607.R696 W38 2006

Water for Elephants is a historical novel by Sara Gruen, written as part of National Novel Writing Month.[1][2]


The story is told as a series of memories by Jacob Jankowski, a 93-year-old man who lives in a nursing home. Jacob is told what to eat and what to do.

As the memories begin, Jacob is a 23-year-old Polish American preparing for his final exams as a Cornell University veterinary student when he receives the devastating news that his parents died in a car accident. Jacob's father was a veterinarian and Jacob had planned to join his practice. When Jacob learns that his parents' home has been mortgaged to pay for his tuition and is not to become his, he has a breakdown and leaves his Ivy League school just short of graduation. In the dark of night, he jumps on a train, a circus train belonging to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. On the train he is befriended by Camel, an old man and circus veteran, who persuades his companions not to throw Jacob off the train and takes him under his wing, finding him odd menial jobs. When the owner of the circus, Uncle Al, learns of his training as a vet, he is hired to care for the circus animals. This leads Jacob to share quarters with a dwarf named Walter (who is known as Kinko to the circus) and his dog Queenie. A few weeks later Jacob is summoned to take a look at Camel, who, after drinking "Jake" (adulterated Jamaican ginger extract) for many years, can't move his arms or legs. Fearing Camel will be "red-lighted" (thrown off a moving train as punishment or as severance from the circus to avoid paying wages),[3] Jacob hides him in his room.

The equestrian director, August, is a brutal man who mistreats the animals in his care (such as the new elephant, Rosie) and the people around him, but he can also be charming and generous. Jacob develops a guarded relationship with August and his wife, Marlena, with whom Jacob falls in love. August is suspicious of their relationship and beats Marlena and Jacob. Marlena subsequently leaves August and stays at a hotel while she is not performing. Uncle Al then informs Jacob that August is a paranoid schizophrenic and utters a threat: reunite August and Marlena as a happily married couple or Walter and Camel get red-lighted.

A few days later after discovering that August has tried to see Marlena, Jacob visits her in her hotel room. Soon after he comforts her, they sleep together, and soon declare their love for each other. Marlena soon returns to the circus to perform (and have secret meetings with Jacob), but refuses to have August near her, which makes Uncle Al furious. She also discovers that she is pregnant.

One night Jacob climbs up and jumps each car, while the train is moving, to August's room, carrying a knife between his teeth intending to kill August. However, he backs out, leaving the knife on August's pillow, and returns to his car, only to find no one there but Queenie. He then realizes that Walter and Camel were red-lighted, and he was also supposed to have been.

As the story climaxes, several circus workers who were red-lighted come back and release the animals, causing a stampede during the performance.

In the ensuing panic, Rosie takes a stake and drives it into August's head. His body is then trampled in the stampede. Jacob was the only one who saw what truly happened to August. As a result of this incident the circus is shut down. Soon after, Uncle Al's corpse is found with a makeshift garrote around his neck. Marlena and Jacob leave, taking with them circus animals including Rosie, Queenie and Marlena's horses, and begin their life together by joining the Ringling Bros circus. Later, Jacob becomes the chief veterinarian at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago where they settled.

Back in the nursing home Jacob is waiting for one of his children to take him to the circus. It is revealed that Jacob and Marlena married and had five children, spending the first seven years at Ringling before Jacob got a job as a vet for the Chicago zoo. Marlena is revealed to have died a few years before Jacob was put into the nursing home. After finding out no one is coming for him, Jacob makes his way to the circus next to the nursing home on his own. He meets the manager Charlie and after the show begs to be allowed to stay with the circus selling tickets, Charlie agrees and Jacob believes he has finally come home.


  • Jacob Jankowski – the protagonist, a 93-year-old nursing home resident reminiscing on the time he spent as a circus veterinarian during the Great Depression.
  • Marlena – the main love interest and a star performer with the circus. She ran away from home to join the circus and marry August, the equestrian director. She enjoys a special rapport with the horses and cares for them deeply.
  • August – Marlena's husband and the head animal trainer. As a classic batterer, he is alternately charming and brutal, both to the humans and animals. Later in the book, it is suggested that he is a paranoid schizophrenic, to explain his violence.
  • Uncle Al – the violent, abusive owner of the circus. He is known for redlighting circus workers. If they were deemed to have committed some particularly egregious offense, they were thrown off while the train was passing over a trestle, presumably with the hope that they would die or be seriously injured.
  • Kinko/Walter – a dwarf with whom Jacob shares living quarters on the circus train. Initially, their relationship is rocky, but they develop a strong friendship. At the beginning of the story, he is known as Kinko. Walter is his real name and he only lets his friends call him this. He has a deep attachment to a Jack Russell terrier named Queenie (a possible allusion to a short story by Truman Capote).
  • Camel – one of the first people Jacob meets when he jumps the train. He is a drunk who is instrumental in getting Jacob a job with the circus. When Camel gets "Jake Leg" from drinking contaminated Jamaican ginger, Jacob and Walter hide him in their car and care for him.
  • Rosie – an elephant that Uncle Al buys from another circus. She is believed to be useless until it is discovered that she understands commands only in Polish. She is often the target of August's rage.
  • Rosemary – a nurse in the nursing home where Jacob lives who is especially kind to Jacob, despite the fact that he can be very rude to her.


Gruen has said that the backbone of her story parallels the biblical story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis.[4]


In the beginning of the novel, Jacob mocks another resident of the nursing home who claims to have worked in the circus and carried water for the elephants. The circus train only had a limited amount of water on board, and elephants can drink 100-300 litres per day (approximately 26-80 gallons).

In a later flashback to Jacob's younger years, Jacob is brought to Uncle Al, the manager of the circus, who taunts him with "You want to carry water for elephants, I suppose?"

Awards and nominations[edit]


  • 2006, USA, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing, ISBN 1-56512-499-5, Pub date 26 May 2006, Hardback
  • 2006, USA, Thorndike Press, ISBN 0-7862-9027-7, Pub date 15 December 2006, Large print hardback
  • 2007, USA, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing, ISBN 1-56512-560-6, Pub date 1 May 2007, Paperback
  • 2006, USA, Highbridge Audio, ISBN 1-59887-062-9, Pub date 1 June 2006, Audiobook

Film adaptation[edit]

A film adaptation produced by Flashpoint Entertainment and Fox 2000 Pictures was released in theaters on April 22, 2011. It was directed by Francis Lawrence, and starred Robert Pattinson as Jacob Jankowski, Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, and Christoph Waltz as August. Hal Holbrook played the older Jacob Jankowski. Other cast members include Mark Povinelli as Kinko/Walter, Jim Norton as Camel, James Frain as Rosie's caretaker, Ken Foree as Earl, and Paul Schneider as Charlie O'Brien.

The character of "Uncle Al" has been eliminated: August is both owner and animal trainer.

The film featured Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum #610 and former McCloud River Railroad No. 18., built in 1914.[11][12]

It was filmed in Ventura County, California; Georgia; and Chattanooga, Tennessee.


  1. ^ "NaNoWriMo Media Kit". Nanowrimo.org. Retrieved 2010-04-25.
  2. ^ WrimoRadio interview with Sara Gruen, November 29, 2008. Interview begins at 3 minute mark. Nanowrimo.org. Retrieved 2011-03-20.
  3. ^ Interview with Sara Gruen
  4. ^ "Reading Group Guide". Readinggroupguides.com. Retrieved 2010-04-25.
  5. ^ Nominess for the 2006 Quill Awards Archived February 23, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "2007 Alex Awards selections". Ala.org. Retrieved 2010-04-25.
  7. ^ [https://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0CE7D61F31F934A35752C0A9619C8B63 The New York Times, Dwight Garner, TBR: Inside the List, January 7, 2007
  8. ^ "picks for June 2006". Booksense.com. Retrieved 2010-04-25.
  9. ^ 2007 The BookBrowse Awards (retrieved May 20, 2007)
  10. ^ New York Times Best Seller list for paperback fiction . Retrieved July 12, 2007.
  11. ^ Cofer, Brittany (August 15, 2010). "Railroad museum prepares for excursion program". Chattanooga Times Free Press. Archived from the original on December 15, 2014. Retrieved 15 December 2014.
  12. ^ "20th Century Fox shoots McCloud River No. 18 in action". Trains. May 28, 2010.

External links[edit]