Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel Water for Elephants is an enchanting historical/romance stoey that presents many themes readers face in everyday life. Set in the 1930s, it tells the story of Jacob Jankowski, a twenty-three-year-old Cornell University veterinary student who drops out of school after his parent’s tragic and sudden death to later join the circus. Jankowski, at a complete loss without his family and the financial means to finish school, goes on a journey of self-discovery and reinvention when he joins the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
Throughout the novel, readers engage in his journey as he faces discrimination due to his socio-economic background, witnesses domestic abuse, fights to protect animals, prejudice that circus workers receive everyday from the “outside world,” and a social hierarchy within the circus world as well. In addition, Gruen presents multiple chapters from Jankowski’s perspective as ninety-three-year-old man growing old and alone in a senior citizen facility. Here, he reflects on his life, his mistakes, all while his family neglects to visit and care for him.
Jankowski worked as an unofficial vet for the circus. While the workers and talents relied on his skills, they loathed everything that he represented—which was everything they were not or had. He went from the top of his game to the bottom of the barrel, and slept on the floor of a train car. Along the way, he earned their respect, yet was never fully welcomed into their world. He fell in love with Marlena, the abused wife of the ringleader, but could not always give her what she needed or wanted because of their differences. He spent the majority of his life in the circus world, only to realize in the end that he too eventually became an outsider, “circus freak” to those in his own life.
I found myself captivated by this novel because many of the themes resonated with my own life—as I am sure yours as well. Specifically, the struggle in self-discovery struck a nerve. I remember when I finished school—after investing three years building a resume for post-graduate academia—it was so scary how easy my decision. I felt burned out, exhausted, lost my passion and drive to continue on, and realized that I never lived a life for myself. I needed to go out into the world and “find myself.”
Easier said than done.
After I graduated from college, I had absolutely no plan B. By turning down the doctoral program path, I had to go figure out what would come next. I began working in retail, which was a humbling experience, and worked as a volunteer for a nonprofit organization for over a year. I did not know what I would find and I had many tearful days where I was on the verge of regretting my decision. However, deep down I knew this is meant to be and I was right where I was suppose to be in life. Amidst my pain, I was happy. I was free. I freed myself from myself. I realized that I kept going and going and going down a path that I didn’t know why I was even on it. When I finally got a paying job in the world of nonprofit development, I knew it would be an uphill journey. Like Jankowsi, I was the outsider coming into a foreign world. I had to, and continue to, put in my time. I had to earn the respect of my far-more established colleagues. I had to earn their trust and respect. Today, I’m now viewed as a peer as I paved my own path. I paved a path from trial and error, from giving up what I thought I wanted for a chance to start anew on my own terms, personally and professionally speaking.
I look back at my “previous life” and it all appears so foreign to me. What I thought I wanted or cared about now seems so inauthentic to my true self.
Nevertheless, freedom comes with a price. The chance to have a clean slate and discover myself came with pain, tears, and heartache. Like Jankowski, I too crashed and burned in my own way. For the first time in my life, I was lost and did not know who I was. Today, for the first time in my life, I know where I am at and exactly who I am.
Water for Elephants is a riveting story that I recommend to those of you on your own journey of self-discovery—or perhaps those of you who cannot see the forest because of the trees. It allowed me to look back on my own journey and, by reflecting on everything good and bad, embrace all that came with it thus far.
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