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Archive 08-19 GR Discussions > Water For Elephants ** Spoilers**

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message 1: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 2175 comments Just wanted to get the conversation started on Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

I'll start off with a generic question: What did you think about the prologue and introduction of elderly Jacob?


message 2: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
When I started the book and read the prologue, I have to admit I wasn't too impressed. I did enjoy the introduction of elderly Jacob, but I wasn't sure what the prologue was all about, since it didn't tie in to anything, and I was wondering "why did this girl just kill this guy?" It wasn't until I was further into the book, (view spoiler)


message 3: by Mandy (new)

Mandy Petrocelli i kind of liked the prologue. i didn't know what it was about either, but it added some suspense and mystery for me. i was not smart enough to figure out who "she" was until the very end, though. : P


message 4: by Jackleen (new)

Jackleen | 36 comments I thought the prologue was a great hook and got me into the story right away. I liked the elderly Jacob from the beginning and could understand his frustrations with his situation as I worked in a nursing home while putting myself through nursing school. Some of the resident aids were fantastic with the clients, others talked to them as if they were three.


message 5: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 2175 comments I was hooked from the prologue and elderly Jacob, then when we went back to younger Jacob the story slowed down for me. Throughout the book, I preferred elderly Jacob's story.

The book starts with a quote from Dr. Seuss "I meant what I said and I said what I meant- An elephant's faithful one hundred per cent." In what ways are the characters of the book loyal to each other? In what ways are they not?

How is it that Jacob seems able to transcend the class lines drawn up between the performers and laborers?


message 6: by Hope (new)

Hope Bowman (hopela) In response to how Jacob was able to transcend the class lines....I think because Jacob is the vet he was in a space between performers and laborers. He had a specialized trade and had to work closely with August, so even if a friendship hadn't formed he was higher up in the ranks than those who set up the tents.

Beyond the hierarchy, Jacob was kind and naive about life in the circus which definitely endeared him to both Walter and Rose.


message 7: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
As to the Dr. Seuss quote, I think this was a totally appropriate quote for this book, and the elephant was definately faithful and loyal to those who loved her! :o)

As to Jacob, I think he was able to transcend the class lines because he came into the circus as a laborer. He did not see himself of the class of the performers, and didn't even think he should be considered a veterinarian, since he had not taken his test. August elevated him to the professional level, equal to the performers, but I think because he still saw himself as a laborer, and identified with the laborers, he was abble to fit in with both classes of people.


message 8: by Mandy (new)

Mandy Petrocelli As to Jacob, I think he w..."

i agree, Sheila. i think the fact that he began as a laborer and did not pretend to be any more, he fit in with the laborers. that said, he was educated and articulate and had won the respect of the professionals, so he was accepted there, too.

i think there were numerous examples of loyalty in the book. Walter was loyal to Jacob, Jacob and Walter were loyal to the drunk guy who develops paralysis (whose name escapes me), Rosie was loyal to her protectors. Loyalty being a characteristic primarily of the poor or working class in this book, it was contrasted with the greed and complete lack of loyalty the circus had for its workers. the laborers weren't paid for their work, and when they complained they were (literally) thrown out. how's THAT for loyalty?

makes you think that it is the simplest folk who are truly the "wealthiest." they are rich with character and friendship, while the men at the top are rolling in money but morally bankrupt


message 9: by Sandra (new)

Sandra (sandee) | 328 comments I loved the elderly Jacob. I think it really added to the story.


message 10: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 2175 comments Since we seem to like elderly Jacob, what ways do his chapters enhance the chapters about younger Jacob's days with the circus? How do younger Jacob's chapters give us a better sense of how elderly Jacob's life has turned out?

At one point, elderly Jacob says he's trying "to see beyond the sagging flesh" but "it's no good... I can't find myself anymore. When did I stop being me?" Ho do you answer that question for him or anyone else?


message 11: by Sharon A. (new)

Sharon A. (sharona826) | 172 comments I loved older Jacob, and the teases about his life kept me going through parts of younger Jacob's story that made me very uncomfortable (the animal abuse.) I wanted to see how his life had progressed, and I have to admit that the ending surprised me.

I'm not sure how to answer the question of "when did I stop being me," but my 82-year-old mother recently said something similar.


message 12: by Laura (new)

Laura Rittenhouse | 31 comments I thought the dichotomy between a man waiting for his life to end and putting up with the indignities of ageing surrounded by people paid to be there and a man full of energy and courage and a willingness to try anything was fantastic. The fact that it was the same man made it all the better.

To try to answer Jennifer's q, I can only assume the beginning of Jacobs loss of himself was when his wife died and the 2nd loss came when he went into a nursing home.

As for loyalties - this was a huge theme in the book. And realities of loyalties - who do you care for first? Yourself? Those you love? Then how much ahead of those you know or even those you don't do you keep yourself? How much will you sacrifice to help others? How much will you hurt others (or even kill in the case of the lowly workers on the trains) to maintain yourself? And, of course, the most painful loyalty - to family. Who was Jacob's family, his children or the circus he wandered into at the end of the book?


message 13: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 2175 comments What do you think about August and Big Al's cutthroat business practices? What did you think about the practice of "redlighting"? Why not leave people behind after a show instead of killing them?


message 14: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
I have no idea why they didn't just leave people behind. They weren't paying some of them for weeks anyway. It's almost like by throwing them off the train while it was moving they made it easier on themselves by not having to have their actions be public. I think that usually when they were redlighted though, they survived, correct? It was only the one time when they threw them off over the bridge that they were actually trying to kill them?


message 15: by Mandy (new)

Mandy Petrocelli I didn't think that "redlighting" actually happened historically, just in the book. But if it did, how horrifically bad!

I figured that most people died when they were thrown off a moving train, but there was at least a chance they would live. I also thought the practice was perfectly consistent with the circus owners' philosophy that laborers and circus hands were disposable - not people, just machines. And if the circus had simply fired them, they may have organized and started making trouble with the remaining laborers. People who are fired or forced to work without pay become angry, and that anger may just spur some of them to do something about it. I figured the circus owners were smart enough to see that, and ruthless enough to deal with it in the most extreme fashion.


message 16: by Becomingme (new)

Becomingme | 51 comments Mandy, the disposable workforce, I think there was an element at that time that thought all workers were disposable...thinking of the sewing factory that the women burned to death in...and I think changing minds of those in charge took longer than it does even today...
As for redlighting, I think management didn't want anyone complaining about lost wages and their exit made sure, at least psychologically that they wouldn't come back.

I identified with the loss of self that older Jacob feels...and it can happen to those that are younger (like me) who happen to be ill, no one really notices it, and you don't like to talk about it...


message 17: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Here is a blurb about redlighting I found online:

http://www.columbiamissourian.com/med...

"In Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants," the fictional Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth cut its payroll by forcing "disposable" workers off the speeding circus train in the middle of the night in a tactic known as red-lighting.

In an interview during her book signing at the Columbia Public Library, Gruen said that form of red-lighting was cited in historical documents.

Former circus tightrope walker Gale Fuller of Fulton, who performed with his family as part of the Fuller Troupe during the Great Depression, recalled a less brutal form of red-lighting. During the One Read book talk he led, Fuller said foundering circuses gave unwanted workers the wrong destination or simply left them behind."

and here is another mention of redlighting:

http://www.circushistory.org/Bandwago...

"Following the sudden Robbins Bros. closing in 1931 which was marred by the "Redlighting" of the show's workmen from the moving train that night resulting in the death of one man and injury to several, Fred Buchanan seemed to then vanish from the pages of the trade publications. He was said to have been a silent partner in some motorized circus operations in the early 30's but his general whereabouts became clothed in mystery. Whether he is still living, or now dead, no one seems to know for sure."

so apparently this did really happen sometimes.


message 18: by Tara (new)

Tara Woolpy | 17 comments Even if red-lighting wasn't a historical occurance (and how horrific that it was), it's a great metaphor for bad labor practices, don't you think?


message 19: by Carrie (new)

Carrie Chaney (carrie_chaney) | 148 comments It's also very ironic that the circus, where people went to forget their worries, seems to have been one of the cruelest industries behind the scenes. Animal abuse, murder, starvation...it really drives home the "illusion" of the show.


message 20: by Ann (new)

Ann | 8 comments It is very unfortunate that in order for some to enjoy others had to suffer so much to produce the entertainment. Thanks for sharing the links on "redlighting".


message 21: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 2175 comments At one point, August tells Jacob that the whole circus is an illusion. Everyone knows it and everyone wants it. Is that such a bad thing? Why go to the circus if you know it's all fake?


message 22: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Truthfully I have never been a fan of the circus, mainly because I don't like how the animals may be treated. I am not a fan of rodeos and similar events for the same reason.


message 23: by Latasha (new)

Latasha  James (smartpeach) I thought the concept of redlighting was horrible. I also didn't think that it was something that would be done in real life.
I don't know if any of you saw the movie, but I saw it with my husband who hadn't read the book. His take on the movie was that the purpose of redlighting was not to kill them but just to get rid of them. His comment made me wonder whether or not I misread the concept. So I was wondering if any of you got the impression that the point of redlighting was not to kill the people? (I do know that there were differences between the book and the movie, but that's definitely a discussion all on its own.)


message 24: by Laura (new)

Laura Rittenhouse | 31 comments Latasha wrote: "I thought the concept of redlighting was horrible. I also didn't think that it was something that would be done in real life.
I don't know if any of you saw the movie, but I saw it with my hu..."


I think the purpose was a) to get rid of unwanted people and b) to keep people in fear. If they happened to die in the process I don't know that management cared that much. Human life didn't have any value in this microcosm of a society. Not until the members stood up and claimed it anyway.


message 25: by Megan (last edited Jul 14, 2011 05:42AM) (new)

Megan Underwood | 267 comments Thanks for the information regarding redlighting. It makes sense that the purpose, as Laura said, was to get rid of unwanted people and to instill fear in the employees that got to stay. At least in this story, management had to find a way to keep disgruntled employees from rallying together regarding poor working conditions and non-payment of payroll checks and, unfortunately, redlighting was the answer. Redlighting was horrific and sad.

On another note, did anyone find the book to be the ultimate love story? I didn’t really see the love story until I learned that Jacob kept August’s murder a secret for so many years.

I really enjoyed this novel. It might be for the simple fact that I love elephants. I found it humorous that Rosie “spoke” Polish. Even though it seems obvious, I never really thought about animals only being familiar with the language that they hear.


message 26: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Megan wrote: "On another note, did anyone find the book to be the ultimate love story? I didn’t really see the love story until I learned that Jacob kept August’s murder a secret for so many years."

Is it really a murder when the elephant did it?


message 27: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 2175 comments Sheila wrote: Is it really a murder when the elephant did it?

Interesting question. In the back of my copy of the book there was an interview with Sara Gruen. She spoke about getting to know people who currently work in the circus and meeting some elephants. She also spoke about 2 elephants who were the inspiration for Rosie. She mentioned how a lot of elephants were (and probably still are) put down if they attack their handlers. So while I would say, technically, no, Rosie's not a murderer, by keeping her secret, Jacob kept her alive. He also protected Marlena from knowing that Rosie was a "killer."

To answer my own question, I think people everywhere at every time have craved illusion, knowing perfectly well it's an illusion. We may not seek it from the circus, but we seek it in movies and TV shows, and (especially this group :) in books.


message 28: by Megan (new)

Megan Underwood | 267 comments Sheila wrote: "Megan wrote: "On another note, did anyone find the book to be the ultimate love story? I didn’t really see the love story until I learned that Jacob kept August’s murder a secret for so many years...."

HA...I guess not.


message 29: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Jennifer W wrote: "She mentioned how a lot of elephants were (and probably still are) put down if they attack their handlers."

Good point. I think this might have happened alot in the past. I remember reading about Mary, the elephant
who was publicly hung after killing her trainer:


Probably today, in the age of more instant news, I think there is more controversy when a performing animal kills it's trainer, and often there is more sympathy to the animal.

I did find one case of a circus elephant Tyke being killed after going on a rampage in 1994


But in other trained animal cases, it seems there is more sympathy to the animals,

Such as in the case of Tilikum, the orca
who killed his trainer at Sea World.


Or the white tiger Montecore that attacked Roy of Sigfried and Roy.


message 30: by Jennifer W (last edited Jul 14, 2011 04:37PM) (new)

Jennifer W | 2175 comments That's true, I tend to have a lot more sympathy for the animal. People have the rational capacity to realize that these are still wild animals, and yet they continue to put their heads in big cats' mouths or swim with an animal the size of a school bus... "What do you expect?" I always ask when those things happen.

Of course, if you're dealing with men who are willing to throw their staff from a moving train, they will certainly kill a killer elephant.

Another question the author interview brought up for me was that Jacob's story was intentionally similar to the Biblical story of Jacob. I'm not all that familiar with that story, does anyone know in what ways they are similar?


message 31: by Megan (last edited Jul 15, 2011 07:22AM) (new)

Megan Underwood | 267 comments I also have sympathy for the animal. I think the trainers get comfortable and forget that they are dealing with a wild animal. Diid anyone ever watch the documentary Grizzly Man?

Jennifer- I just checked out Mary, the elephant. How very sad.


message 32: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Jennifer W wrote: "Another question the author interview brought up for me was that Jacob's story was intentionally similar to the Biblical story of Jacob. I'm not all that familiar with that story, does anyone know in what ways they are similar?"

The author said her Jacob was supposed to be similar to the Biblical Jacob????? Hmmm, I don't see it...at all. Must have missed something there. :o)
And for those of you who may not be that familiar with Jacob and his story in the bible, maybe you have read The Red Tent, which is the story of Jacob, his wives, and his daughter.


message 33: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Megan wrote: " Diid anyone ever watch the documentary Grizzly Man?..."

I haven't seen the documentary, but I did buy the book The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears for my husband, which he read. In his opinion, the guy was an idiot, and maybe deserved to be eaten by the bears.


message 34: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 2175 comments Shelia, I have read (and love) The Red Tent, but I didn't think it could be the same Jacob, because I saw no similarities, either. Glad I'm not the only one. :)


message 35: by Megan (new)

Megan Underwood | 267 comments I also read the Red Tent and did not see any similarities between the Jacobs. Very strange.


message 36: by Carrie (new)

Carrie Chaney (carrie_chaney) | 148 comments I didn't get the Bible reference either. lol. I was really surprised to read that.


message 37: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
How funny that we all missed her supposed reference to the Biblical Jacob. :o)


message 38: by Becomingme (new)

Becomingme | 51 comments I was trying to look for it too, and never found the link as well...I had to look and I found some references here:
another Goodreads discussion

I looked under the wiki site (before finding the above site) and it seemed the Jacob connection was fitting if viewed in the more Judaic tradition Wikipedia page...actually this helped me understand the story of Jacob better overall because as a child (heck much of life till now) I found the tales of Jacob to be fraught with deceit and never really cared for them...


message 39: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth I was puzzled too about her mention of the Biblical reference! Here are the few closest I could come up with:
- On the run: Biblical Jacob (B.J.) had to flee his home after decieving his father and brother. The book's Jacob (WFE-J) also was leaving his home
- "Working" for his wife: B.J. worked for Laban for 14 years to be allowed to marry Rachel, the woman he loved (initially 7 years, but was tricked and given Leah as a bride, so had to work an additional 7 for Rachel). WFE-J would have never met Marlena without working at the circus, also under a "villanous" task master, August (does August = Laban? not sure that works exactly.)
- Returning to his roots: B.J. eventually left Laban and settled back in the land he had left many years earlier. WFE-J. ends the book by joining up with the circus again after many years.

Obviously, it's still quite a stretch! But perhaps this is what Sara was thinking of when she wrote or made that comment? I can't figure out anything else, since the rest of the story of Biblical Jacob is filled with trajedies and does not correlate at all with WFE. Just my opinion!


message 40: by Mandy (new)

Mandy Petrocelli Does anyone have any thoughts on the meaning of the title, Water for Elephants? I've seen several discussions, (and maybe I'm just too obtuse), but I still don't quite get it.


message 41: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
In the nursing home when the circus came to town, the one man, whom Jacob didn't like, said when he was younger he worked at a circus and had carried "water for the elephants". Jacob, having worked in the circus, knew that you didn't carry water to the elephants (elephants drink way too much water), so he knew the man was lying and had never worked for the circus.


message 42: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 2175 comments I was surprised, though, that they didn't explain how they did water the elephants. I assume at a pond or river or something, but given how Rosie initially wouldn't move (because she didn't understand the language barrier), how did they get her to water?


message 43: by Mandy (last edited Jul 21, 2011 10:26AM) (new)

Mandy Petrocelli Sheila wrote: "In the nursing home when the circus came to town, the one man, whom Jacob didn't like, said when he was younger he worked at a circus and had carried "water for the elephants". Jacob, having worke..."

But how does that explain the title? Is the phrase significant because it triggers Jacob's walk down memory lane? If claiming to have carried water for elephants is a lie, does the title imply something else is a lie or fantasy or a meaningless boast?

I think it must be a larger metaphor. Something to do with age and care . . . or maybe I'm trying to find meaning where there is none. : )


message 44: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Oh boy Mandy. Now you are way over my head! LOL
Titles are supposed to stand for something? Or have larger metaphorical meaning???? I guess I never think that far out.

To me, the title Water For Elephants, along with the person ducking into the circus tent on the cover of the book, just suggests that there is a circus theme to the book. And then when carrying water to the elephants was mentioned in the story, I just figured it was a phrase that fit. I never thought past that. :o)


message 45: by Mandy (new)

Mandy Petrocelli You know, Sheila, you are probably right. I do have a tendency to overthink things. :0P


message 46: by Carrie (new)

Carrie Chaney (carrie_chaney) | 148 comments @Mandy -- I thought it had to do with deception: the old man lying about carrying water for elephants/the circus life being cruel but appearing fun and magical. Something along those lines.


message 47: by Megan (new)

Megan Underwood | 267 comments Carrie, I really like that explanation.

I thought the title had to do with caring/protecting. Elephants were one of the most sought after animals in a circus and they required a large amount of water SO maybe the title referred to Jacob carrying water for Rosie, Marlena, and all the other circus outcasts.


message 48: by Carrie (new)

Carrie Chaney (carrie_chaney) | 148 comments Ooh, I like that one too, Megan! :)


message 49: by Louise (last edited Aug 10, 2011 12:13AM) (new)

Louise I like the way the story described, how old people feel, and how many around them aren't aware of the person "inside" and the life they've lead.
Jacob's craving for whiskey, food he can chew into and the treatment that only Rosemary gives him, gives food for thought.

I think the book managed to convey the magic as well as the brutality of the circus. The 30's WERE brutal, because people were starving and fighting to survive - I mean we may think we've experienced financial crisis these last few years, but it's really nothing compared to back then.

I also like the neat way Gruen tied the past and present together, and the ending was quite magical. I also think the book is loyal to the magic of a "well-run" circus - their years with Ringling Brothers were good, but just as in modern day showbiz, there are ruthless people like Al and August, ready to exploit others without thinking twice.

In the ends when he gets to travel with the last circus - he suddenly remembers his exact age - 93. Maybe that signifies that Jacob "wakes up" a little, now that he's out in the real world and back with the circus?


message 50: by Rachel (new)

Rachel (wolfewoman) | 24 comments I really enjoyed this book. I liked old Jacob and young Jacob and I enjoyed the way the author switched back and forth. I had a very hard time reading the casual cruelty towards both animals and people. Even though it was fiction, I know it was based in fact, and it was hard to take. I thought the author did a very good job with the animals, making them real with personalities but not anthropomophizing them. That's hard to pull off.
I also read the interview saying there were comparisons between biblical Jacob & circus Jacob, but I certainly didn't pick up on any.


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