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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

While reading the Chicago Tribune, Sarah Gruen found the photograph accompanying an article on the travelling circus so fascinating, it put her on the path to writing Water for Elephants.   The main character, Jacob Jankowski, jumps on the circus train after suffering a tragedy in his life.  He encounters “the most dazzling collection” of people and animals “gathered from all four corners of the earth”.

From the Publisher

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.  Copyright 2006 Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill


Book Club Ideas

Planning the decorations and menu for this circus themed party was bringing back memories of when I went to the circus with my best friend from down the street.  When you think big top and circus, you think red and white, big lollipops, popcorn and peanuts, hot dogs and snow cones.   I incorporated all these items, and then some, in my Water for Elephants book club party.


Instead of flowers, I decided to make a center piece by filling a vase with gum balls and jumbo swirl candy lollipop and party balloon pops.  You can use a variety of lollipops to make your own unique center piece:

Bubble Gum and Lollipop Center Piece

Lisa searched her boys’ toy box and came up with these circus toys – perfect to set up a big top scene.

Big Top Scene

I also placed my computer in my entry and changed my computer screen background to show a slide show of circus images and hung colorful balloons all over the house.

What to Wear

My book club sisters showed up in a variety of outfits for this party.  Annie and Mom were dressed like ringmasters, Lisa wore a pink glittery shirt and I wore a pink sequined dress to represent Marlena.  Kristi dressed like a performer (in the cooch tent?) with a black boa.  Other members wore circus t-shirts.

My Book Club

Book Club Menu

For the serving table, I purchased red and white striped fabric to use for a tablecloth.  Popcorn in plastic popcorn boxes and roasted peanuts in the shell were set out on the table for when the guests arrived.

Popcorn and Roasted Peanuts

For appetizers, I served Kinko’s Corn Dogs with Honey Mustard Sauce and chips with Spinach Hummus Dip and Creamy Blue Cheese Dip.

Mini Pigs in the Blanket Appetizers

Mini Pigs in the Blanket Appetizers

For the main meal, I served Circus Dogs with the trimmings and Rosie’s Watermelon Cucumber Salad.

Hotdogs and Watermelon Cucumber Salad

I wanted to make snow cones for dessert but didn’t want to serve the traditional syrupy snow cones we all know and love.   Instead, I made Rosemary’s Sweet Raspberry Sorbet and served them in snow cone cups. Rosemary is the type of nurse I hope to have when I’m 90 or 93 years old, so I wanted to name my dessert after her.


Trough Water Lemonade is a must at a Water for Elephants book club party.  But don’t worry, this is made with fresh squeezed lemons and clean purified water.

Fresh Squeezed Lemonade

I found this bottle of Michael David Petite Petit Sirah with a circus label and had to get it for the party.  Actually, Annie showed up with two more bottles of the wine.

Petite Petit Sirah with Circus Label

Book Club Resources


  • “This colorful headlong tale of a Depression-era circus simply can’t be beat.”  — Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly
  • “You’ll get lost in the tatty glamour of Gruen’s meticulously researched world, from spangled equestrian pageantry and the sleazy side show to an ill-fated night at a Chicago speak-easy.”  — The Washington Post
  • “[An] arresting new novel….With a showman’s expert timing, [Gruen] saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale.”  —The New York Times Book Review


  • The prologue sets the scene for a dramatic ending.  Who did you think killed August and why?  What was your reaction when you finally realized who killed August?
  • The story is told by two narrators, young Jacob and old Jacob.  Did you like this format?  Does this give you a better understanding of this character?  Would this story have been more compelling if it were told from beginning to end, without knowing how Jacob’s life turned out?
  • Which character did you find most admirable and why?
  • “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant… An elephant’s faithful – one hundred per cent!” ( Theodor Seuss Geisel, Horton Hatches the Egg, 1940)  Why do you think Sara Gruen included this quote at the beginning of the book?  Does Rosie remain faithful to her trainers regardless of her experiences?
  • What did you think of old Jacob’s decision at the end of the novel?  What would you have done in his shoes?

The Author

Sara Gruen has written four novels:  Riding Lessons, Flying Changes, Water for Elephants and Ape House. Originally from Canada, she now lives in the south with her husband, sons, horses, dogs, cats and a goat.  Sara Gruen’s Website

Be sure to visit Sara Gruen’s  Critters in Need and do what you can to help our furry, scaly, feathery friends out there.

Two books of depression era circus photographs that inspired Sara Gruen:  Step Right This Way: The Photographs of Edward J. Kelty and Wild, Weird, and Wonderful: The American Circus 1901-1927 as seen by F. W. Glasier, Photographer.

2006 Quill Award nominee for General FictionWater for Elephants Awards and Nominations

  • 2007 Alex Awards selection
  • Book Sense #1 pick for June 2006
  • Winner of the 2007 BookBrowse award for most popular book
  • A Los Angeles Times Bestseller
  • A Wall Street Journal Bestseller
  • A Newsday Favorite Book of 2006
  • A USA Today Bestseller
  • Entertainment Weekly Best Novel of 2006 nominee
  • The paperback hit #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list on July 8, 2007

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Feel free to add your ideas, comments or book review below.

  1. I want to come to your book club! Y’all look like so much fun!

    Comment by bermudaonion (Kathy)

  2. Love the article in Woman’s World! Now I need some refreshing lemonade on this oh so hot day!

    Comment by Leigh2002

  3. Love it!

    Comment by Whatcha Find?