Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
In Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, 23-year-old veterinary student, Jacob Jankowski, is looking forward to graduating with a degree from Cornell University and joining his father’s veterinary practice. Unfortunately, fate intervenes and Jacob’s parents are killed in an automobile accident. Jacob learns that his parents have no savings and plenty of debt, having bartered for veterinary payments from cash-poor farmers (it is the Depression, after all) and mortgaged their house to the teeth in order to pay his tuition.
Bereft of both parents and financial future, Jacob despairs and jumps a train moving through the town. It happens to belong to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a poor cousin to Ringling Brothers. Once it’s discovered that he has veterinary experience, he is put in charge of the animals, a task that is at once heartwarming, thankless, and distressing. The circus is run by the greedy Uncle Al and the brilliant but mercurial August, the animal trainer who keeps the circus afloat. August, a paranoid schizophrenic, alters between warmly welcoming Jacob and trying to kill him.
Jacob has more heart than sense, and falls in love with the lovely Marlena, the talented horse performer who is also, unfortunately, August’s wife. Add to this cauldron of love and hate, longing and repression, a bunch of quirky characters, a blistering heat wave, plenty of bootleg liquor, and the raging hormones of a young man, and you have a most excellent story indeed.
The story is told in chapters alternating from the “present-day” Jacob - the bitter and frustrated 93-year-old resident of a nursing home - and his younger self. The language Gruen uses perfectly captures Circus life during the Depression, captivating the reader with descriptions of rubes, cooch tent, grifters, roustabouts, and the experience of having to pack up the circus and leave town in a hurry with a mob at your heels. The novel was made into a movie in 2011.