Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen; Toby Tyler, by James Otis

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine ran away to join the circus. She went on tour with Cirque du Soleil as part of the orchestra. Not quite the traditional big top and elephant-led parade, but it reminded me of childhood fantasies of criss-crossing the country as part of a circus. Sure, I wanted to get gussied up in pink satin and ride around the ring standing on the back of a big white horse, but that wasn’t my primary motivation. Being on the road appealed to me; in another place and time, I’d have fantasized about running off with a gypsy caravan. Most of all, I wanted to hang out with the circus people. I wanted to be one of those enlightened and cynical people behind the scenes, the ones who knew all the secrets.

These books share some of those secrets. People on my maillists have been raving about Water for Elephants for months, so I picked it up and became absorbed by this story of a Depression-era circus and the young runaway who joined it. It’s framed by the story of the same man at ninety-three, stuck in a comprehensive care retirement community, “one of the ancient dusty people, filed away like some worthless tschotchke.” The two stories feed off each other; Jacob doesn’t seem to have lost much of his orneriness and hot-headed courage over the years.

Gruen’s extensive research adds depth without calling attention to itself. Period and sensory details made me feel the bite of a toothless lion, the rocking of the train underfoot, the difficulty of moving from wheelchair to walker. Some circus characters and scenes turn out to be based on those she discovered in her reading. And I was charmed by the period photographs she included.

My only quibble was with the prologue. Some people can’t stand prologues; they skip them or refuse to read a book that has one. I don’t mind them, as long as they contribute to the story and aren’t just a—to me, lazy—way of foreshadowing or starting in media res, as we’re told to do. Here, the prologue is a chunk of the climax copied and pasted in front of Chapter One. It’s confusing because we don’t know the characters or what’s going on. It’s unnecessary because Chapter One’s opening is a fine start. And—for me—it detracts from the climax when we finally get there by adding a ho-hum, been-there dimension. It did not make me curious to read on; it simply exasperated me.

However, I was able to forget about it quickly and fell so thoroughly under the spell of the story that I read it all in one go. I kept trying to put it down so I could tackle my massive to-do list but next thing I knew, there I was reading it again. It even sent me back to Toby Tyler on which the 50’s tv show Circus Boy was based. The show starred Mickey Dolenz, later one of the Monkees, as Toby.

Although my copy of the book with its brittle brown pages doesn’t show a date, I thought it must date from the era of sugar-sweet children’s stories. Maybe, but this book surprised me with its candid look behind the tent flaps. Some of the details, such as the “lemonade” made from brook water with a few lemon slices for show, were similar to Gruen’s book (hers was a little worse: trough water with the straw filtered out). Certainly the idea was the same: circus people are like any other group of people, a mixture of kind, generous folks and cruel bullies. Even so, there are still days when running away to join the circus seems to me like a great idea.

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