Monday, April 2, 2012

Water for Elephants: Recap

Believe it or not, we did both read this book during the month of February. What we did not do was post questions about it. March was evidently spectacular enough that neither of us read The Art of Fielding all the way through, though we're still plugging away at it.

Albiet a bit late, here are my (Kim's) answers to questions about Water for Elephants.

1.       How does the novel’s epigraph, the quote from Dr. Suess’s Horton Hatches the Egg, apply to the novel? What are the roles and importance of faithfulness and loyalty in Water for Elephants? In what ways does Gruen contrast the anantagonisms and cruelties of circus life with the equally impressive loyalties and instances of caring?

K: Most of the book is centered around faithfulness and loyalty. Not only in the faithfulness and loyalty of people to each other, but of people to animals and animals to people. It was important to show the historical accuracy of circus life and in doing so, necessary to show that animals weren’t always treated with the care they deserved. However, she contrasted the harsh cruelties with several caretakers in the lives of the animals who truly loves and cared for their creatures.

2.       Who did you, upon reading the prologue, think murdered August? What effect did that opening scene of chaos and murder have on your reception of the story that follows?

K: I thought it was Marlena, but as the book progressed I sort of wondered if it was the elephant. I kept waiting throughout the book for something to happen to justify Marlena’s killing of August. And while he was a wretched man, Gruen didn’t give a lot of evidence that he was mean to Marlena, until nearer the end. By that point, I thought it was evident that Marlena wouldn’t be capable of overpowering him physically.

3.       August says of Marlena, “Not everyone can work with liberty horses. It’s a God-given talent, a sixth sense, if you will”. Both August and Jacob recognize Marlena’s skills, her “sixth sense,” in working with the horses. In what ways does that sixth sense attract each man? How do August and Jacob differ in terms of the importance each places on Marlena’s abilities?

K: I think August saw Marlena’s abilities in terms of profitability for the circus. Performance-based if you will. Jacob recognized her relationship with the animals, and how deeply she cared for their well-being. People who have that strong bond with animals has always fascinated me. I don’t think I’m one of those people, but enjoy being around animal people.

4.       After Jacob puts Silver Star down, August talks with him about the reality of the circus. “The whole thing’s illusion, Jacob,” he says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what the people want from us. It’s what they expect”. How does Gruen contrast the worlds of reality and illusion in the novel? Is there anything wrong with pandering to people’s need for illusion? Why do we crave the illusions that the circus represents?

K: She’s certain to point out enough behind the scenes activity of the circus so as to inform her reader about the reality of the show. She tells how they take crowd people who question the show out back. I can’t say its always right to pander to people’s need for illusion, but in a circus or performance based situation why not? Its part of the fun – it’s a challenge for people to try and figure out how it really works when they realize what is or isn’t truth.

5.       Reflecting on the fact that his platitudes and stories don’t hold his children’s interest, the elderly Jacob notes, “My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik – that’s all ancient history now. But what else do I have to offer?” How might we learn to appreciate the stories and life lessons of our elders and encourage people younger than ourselves to appreciate our own?

K: In order for younger people to appreciate our stories, we have to be good story tellers. While I have never whole heartedly enjoyed historical movies or reading, and history was my worst grade in high school, visiting with a real person about their past is completely fascinating for me. It has a lot to do with the personal value. When you sit down to hear a story from someone, they often times focus on the human involvement instead of facts and numbers. The interpersonal connections are what draws me in.

6.       After Jacob successfully coaches August in Polish commands for Rosie, he observes, “It’s only when I catch Rosie actually purring under August’s loving ministrations that my conviction starts to crumble. And what I’m left looking at in its place is a terrible thing”. What is Jacob left “looking at”, and how does it pertain to August’s personality and Jacob’s relationship with August, and what makes it a “terrible thing”?

K: I took it to mean Jacob was left looking at trust; trust from Rosie to August. Jacob seemed to always have some sort reservations when it came to August, but he did also seem to trust him for a while until he was wronged. I think Jacob knew that Rosie’s trusting August would eventually lead to heartbreak for the elephant, which it obviously did.

7.       After the collapse of the Benzini Brothers circus and Uncles Al’s having “done a runner”, Jacob realizes, “Not only am I unemployed and homeless, but I also have a pregnant woman, bereaved dog, elephant and eleven horses to take care of. What expectations did you entertain for Jacob and Marlena’s – and their menagerie’s – future after they leave the Benzini Brothers circus? How do the elderly Jacob’s memories of Marlena and their life together confirm or alter those expectations?

K: I wasn’t really sure what to expect after they left the circus. I sort of assumed they’d just be homeless for a while until Jacob got into work as a vet somewhere. It sounds as though they had a decent life in the circus, and later working at a zoo. I would have like to hear more about Marlena as a mother and a wife, but that was obviously not the focus of this book. J

8.       In the words of one reviewer, Water for Elephants “explores…the pathetic grandeur of the Depression-era circus.” In what ways and to what extent do the words “pathetic grandeur” describe the world that Gruen creates in her novel?

K: Grandeur was show day, what the public saw. Everything else regarding the circus could apparently fall under pathetic.

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