Running Away to Join the Circus, or Toby Tyler and me….and “Water for Elephants”

I could only have been three years old, because the movie “Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with the Circus” came out in 1960, when I was just a sprout.  All I remember is an emotional rationale for leaving one’s foster parents behind, and acquiring a new friend in the form of a chimp, which of course in pre-chimp violence in the media days, we all longed to do.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to run away and join the circus and have a monkey for a pal?  The rest of the movie is very, very dim in my recollection, except I imagine from the aura it left in my mind, that there was a happy ending.  For anyone interested in finding out, however, there is a copy available still on Amazon, for rent or purchase.

Now, monkeys are one thing, elephants are another:  firstly, monkeys are of a manageable size (as were all the monkeys in the movies in the old days, the ones kids made friends with, and leaving King Kong out of account); they are natural mimics, and show us a part of ourselves we rarely see except in mimicry.  But elephants?  They are large and ungainly and however noble and intelligent are just plain too big to wrap their limbs around one’s neck in affection.  But that doesn’t mean, as Sara Gruen would have us know, that they don’t feel and retain memories and affection, and also remember grudges.  And there is, after all, that versatile trunk.  It’s not only that an elephant never forgets, to quote the old saw, but as Gruen quotes from Dr. Seuss’s work Horton Hatches the Egg, “An elephant’s faithful–one hundred per cent!”  And in her novel about the circus, circus folk, and circus animals and their correct treatment, Water for Elephants, she illustrates not only elephants and other animals showing qualities which only people are sometimes believed to have, but also shows the downside of some members of the human race, who are, in the phrase which unfairly characterizes our cohabitants on this planet, “acting like animals.”

The story is told from the perspective of one Jacob Jankowski, who in the present of the novel is a resident in an assisted living home where too much assistance is sometimes given and too little real living is going on, at least in his own view.  In alternate chapters, he relives his past in memory, first as a veterinary student then as an only partially qualified vet for animals in a circus he joins when his parents die and unintentionally leave him penniless and homeless.  And in many ways, he is leaping out of the frying pan into the fire.  For example, he is among a group of heavy drinking people during Prohibition, many of whom drink chemically dangerous alcohol derivatives; he is under the supervision of an occasionally crazed equestrian director and a circus manager who cares only for the main chance to make a buck; finally, while it takes him a while to keep from alienating a number of roustabouts and performers alike on the circus train, he finds himself falling in love with the paranoid schizophrenic equestrian director’s wife, and playing a role to hide his feelings in order to protect the two of them from retribution.

Little by little, Jacob’s fortunes go first up and then down in the circus past as he remembers it, partially in keeping with the fortunes of the rather lately acquired elephant, Rosie, who turns out to be much more “human” than some of her keepers.  And then, he enters a period of relative good luck.  I really refuse to issue the standard spoiler alert and spoil the surprises waiting for the reader at the end of the novel.  Suffice it to say that Jacob’s experience on the circus train serves him well both in his past, his present, and in what we are led to believe will be his future, and in order to appreciate Sara Gruen’s fine work, which came about in spite of the fact that she had no early experience of the circus, growing up in northern Ontario and only doing her research as an adult, the reader will have to read the quite suspenseful and exciting book.  By the by, the book contains an excellent interview with Gruen, who is a pet lover and owner with her husband and family of various pets, as well as a question section which provides topics for group discussion.  All in all, the book is well worth the asking price of $13.95 which is on the cover, though I am sorry to report that my copy was a library discard, which usually makes me happy because I get them for free that way.  Still, I can always hope that the reason it was discarded isn’t because the library judged it no longer of literary value, but because they had acquired a non-water-damaged copy to replace the somewhat warped paperback version I now have.  For certainly, this book is an adventure full of both the excitement any of us may feel at seeing a circus or carnival, revisiting our own childhoods, and provocative adult issues of love, kindness, and humanity that need to be explored by us in our mature lives.


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7 responses to “Running Away to Join the Circus, or Toby Tyler and me….and “Water for Elephants”

  1. I enjoyed Water for Elephants too. It was a wee bit magical.


    • Yes, I agree that it was a magical reading experience. I just sort of slipped into it almost without effort, because after the first page or two, I was clearly hooked. The characters are so alive and vital, the events read as so real that you forget that in a way you are reading a fiction. Of course, the author says that she used a lot of real events in it as well as using her own imagination, and I like the way that the boundary between the two is seamless.


  2. This turned up on one of my book group lists a couple of years ago and I have to admit that I was reluctant to read it. In general, I don’t ‘do’ animal books. How wrong I was. Have you seen the film? I’ve been avoiding it for fear it diminishes my excellent memories of the novel.


    • I haven’t seen the film, and I suspect that Hollywood wouldn’t do justice to the book by leaving it as nearly as possible as it is. What I enjoyed was not only the kindness to animals that the book promotes, however, but the general atmosphere of kindness and social love that the book encourages, whether in one’s attitude towards animals or towards people. I thought the character interactions, for example, were excellent.


  3. Such fun to read someone else’s opinion of a book I’ve read. I have read ‘Water for Elephants’ and also seen the film. As one can imagine, the film – although I enjoyed it – cannot get into the depths a book does. I read the book whilst on holiday, three years ago (before I saw the film). I found it a little unrealistic in parts (I cannot clarify further without giving away much of the plot). I thought it was an enjoyable, easy read but would have liked it to see more layers to the human characters.
    If we’re on the subject of “animal books”, may I heartily recommend two by Nicholas Evans. Yes, there is the famous “Horse Whisperer”, which is marvellous. However, an even more special title is “The Loop”, where the story revolves around the relationship between humans and wolves. Some of the descriptions of human cruelty towards wolves, I’m afraid I had to skip because I could not stomach them. Nevertheless, every human character in the novel has so many layers and inner conflicts that you feel empathy not just towards the “good” characters but also the cruel ones. Nicholas Evans has that rare gift of suggesting a compassionate backstory for every character, which explains his/her motivations and past traumas/experiences, and shows him/her not as a mere “baddie” but as an individual who hurts because he/she knows no better. “The Loop” carries across the message that if you fully understand why wicked things happen, you no longer view them as wickedness but as tragic mistakes.
    It’s on my list of ten favourite books.


    • Hi, Katia. Thanks for sharing your impressions and opinions of this book and others concerning animals. I think it’s very important that people begin to respect our fellow “citizens” on earth, which is what animals actually are, and any book which shows this conflict between people who do and who don’t seem to appreciate this truth is an important and vital one to read. I don’t think one has to be soft-headed and love fuzzy bunnies to be compassionate and love rabbits, if you see what I mean. That is a key difference to me between “Water for Elephants” and others of a similar nature. While there were moments early on in my reading of the book when I asked myself if there wasn’t something a little amateurish about certain lines or sentences, the feeling quickly passed as I got involved in seeing the characters gradually learning the costs of brutalizing both each other and animals. Gruen’s humanity makes up to me for the occasional flawed sentence, or predictable plot twist. Thanks also for the reference to Nicholas Evans. While I saw the movie “The Horse Whisperer,” I never read the book, and was “out of the loop” vis-a-vis “The Loop.” I’ll try to read them soon.


  4. Pingback: Jumble Spoiler – 04/18/13 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

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