BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE
Summary: The novel, told in flashback by nonagenarian
Jacob Jankowski, recounts the wild and wonderful period he spent with
the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus
he joined during the Great Depression. When 23-year-old Jankowski learns
that his parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving him penniless,
he drops out of Cornell veterinary school and parlays his expertise
with animals into a job with the circus, where he cares for a menagerie
of exotic creatures. He also falls in love with Marlena, one of the
show's star performers — a romance complicated by Marlena's husband,
the unbalanced, sadistic circus boss who beats both his wife and the
animals Jankowski cares for.
1. How does the Prologue foreshadow what's to come? Were you pulled
into the story?
2. Is Jacob a reliable narrator? What might lead you to think that
he is/isn't? Do you think that the telling of the story by the elderly
Jacob detracts from the book?
3. Why does Gruen call her novel Water For Elephants?
4. Gruen frequently uses humor in the novel, despite the rather ugliness
of 1930's circus life. Cite some examples.
5. August says of the circus, " The whole thing's illusion, Jacob...there's
nothing wrong with that. It's what people want from us. It's what they
expect." How are the worlds of reality and illusion contrasted
in the novel? Is there anything wrong with pandering to people's illusions?
6. The elderly Jacob, reflecting on his appearance in the mirror, asks,
" When did I stop being myself?" How would you answer that
for Jacob or anyone else? How does Gruen handle the voice and character
of the elderly Jacob?
7. How does Jacob feel about August's seemingly new-and-improved relationship
with Rosie once he teaches him the necessary Polish words?
8. How did you react to Uncle Al's redlighting of Walter, Camel and
the others? Did you expect it?
9. We've all heard about the so-called glamour of running away to join
the circus. How did this well-researched novel change your opinion?
10. The 1930' s circus appears to be a microcosm of society in general.
In what ways is this similarity apparent?
11. Jacob finds a friend in Rosemary at the home. How real is she?
How does his relationship with her parallel other relationships in his
12. Define Marlena and August's relationship. How would you characterize
Marlena throughout the novel? How do your feelings for Marlena change
once you learn her background?
13. Why do you think circuses even survived during the Depression?
14. Why doesn’t Jacob go through with killing August?
15. Why is Jacob's trek to the circus from the home believable? Is this
too much like a fairy-tale ending or all part of the illusion we all
desire? Another possible reading of the ending might be that Jacob simply
and finally crossed the line into dementia. What do you think of this?
with Sara Gruen - Reading Group Guides
Big Tent: The Traveling Circus in Georgia 1820-1930
Ringling Brothers & Barnum
and Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth
People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals - Circuses
Discussion questions provided by Rosanne Melita, Susannah
Risley, and Marilyn Day.
This discussion guide made possible with public
funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored
by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.