I have a long history with circuses. The first comes from a library book I checked out, at the age of seven, called Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With a Circus.
Now, why would I remember a book I checked out 39 years ago? Because it, like many other of my library books, was sadly overdue, and the Nichols Library saw fit to pester, scold and practically beat all its patrons (especially children) until every last nickel was paid. I had to save my money, one coin at a time, until I came up with the replacement cost for Toby.
Years later he appeared. Under my bed, against the wall, long forgotten. I think I threw it out I was so mad; I know I’ve never read it since.
The second great encounter with an elephant was with Ziggy. He came to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo after he had killed his trainer and was given away by the Ziegfeld’s Follies. (Hence his name.) There was an outcry on his behalf when I was in elementary school, and my mother would read us snippets of stories about him from the Chicago Tribune while we were finishing our breakfast.
One of his tusks was remarkably shorter than the other, because it had been broken off in the attack, and this seemed both macabre and fascinating to my brother and I. Unfortunately, this picture does not show the discrepancy in Ziggy’s tusks.
So, when all the women at school were reading Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen, I was half intrigued and half annoyed at the thought of another circus book. Another elephant story. Fine, fine, fine.
Wrong. This is a special book.
It captures what it must be like to have lived, performed, and traveled with the circus in the early 1900’s. I was absolutely enthralled with the development of each character, the mood created by the author to the point where you could smell the popcorn, cotton candy, animals, and the canvas tents laid over the sawdust.
There is a murder in this book, “by a mute heroine”, as well as a picture of what it is like to live with someone who is paranoid schizophrenic. It is told through the eyes of an elderly man, who must face the loneliness that old age, and diminished faculties, brings us.
But, it is not sad. It is not depressing. It is not boring.
It’s one of the best circus books I’ve read in a long, long time.
Well, at least since I lost Toby.