Sunday, August 5, 2007


I once knew a guy in high school who ran away and joined the circus. I swear. We all called him Tiger. He was an athletic gymnast/diver, he was very intelligent (although seemed somewhat indifferent to his grades), and we once bonded over a Lewis Carroll anthology of poems and mathematical jokes. He seemed utterly unlike anyone else at my high school, and I wasn't completely surprised when I found out he joined the circus. He returned a few months later, but I didn't know him well enough to quiz him about his experience. Although he seemed like a laid-back, contented fellow, seemingly less affected by the social pressures of high school than most of us, I remember detecting a bit of melancholy in his demeanor. I don't know if the circus caused or just coincided with that, but I can't blame him for wanting to escape W.H.S.

What I learned from reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is that life in a third rate circus during the Great Depression sucked. (I also learned that Thomas Edison was vile.) No, seriously, the circus was even worse than you think. There are some pretty gritty scenes in the book, so be forewarned.

The protagonist, Jacob, in his 90s and discontent in a nursing home, tells in flashbacks about being orphaned just before completing his veterinary degree and running away with the circus. He's basically a decent, young guy in wretched circumstances. My friend Jenn told me she couldn't put this book down, and likewise I found it difficult. The ending came as a complete surprise to me and was thoroughly enchanting.

Gruen's chapters weave the past and present together well, and her excellent story is the result of some fascinating research and assimilation of circus myths and fact. It makes me reconsider the allure of running away. There is something so thrilling and terrifying about such an adventure. Think of how many children's books whisk the little ones away from home, or ponder the dizzying spontaneity of how The Hobbit begins.

However, I won't be running off anytime soon. If I had to run off and join a group, it wouldn't be the circus, or a cult, or a gypsy caravan, or a roving zombies mob, or an autonomous collective. Pirates are always tempting, but piratical society has tragically dwindled in recent years (suspiciously contrasting the advent of global warming!). I've always fancied myself a decent spy in the sense that I wouldn't make all those stupid errors in the movies, and I have no upper body strength, so I have a stronger incentive not to get caught. Plus, who would suspect me? I might already be a spy, for all you know.

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