Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Age of ....... Elephants?

I have just finished reading Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, an Alex Award winner for 2007 (in other words, an adult novel published in 2006 and recommended for teen readers by the Young Adult Library Services Association). This novel is a raucous good read--a suspenseful mystery full of odd characters, strange events, and heartrendering plot developments. I wouldn't suggest using this novel in high school teaching, but I definitely would recommend it to a mature high school reader looking for something new and different to read.

I like the novel for many reasons. The tantalizing sexual energy and behind-the-scenes depiction of Depression-era circus life make this a novel to remember. In addition, like John Hamamura's Color of the Sea, Water for Elephants presents readers with tough moral questions: When is it necessary to say no to the personal and financial rewards that evil brings? How does one confront evil and not do harm to oneself and others? These questions underlie the suspense at the heart of Water For Elephants, and make it an intellectually engaging as well as immensely enjoyable read.

For the purpose of this research project, the obvious question to ask is what a story about elephants and a complex love triangle set in a circus in the 1930's has to do with the contemporary world. The answer to this question, I believe, lies in a scene early on in this novel. August, the man married to Marlena, the circus performer in love with August's employee, Jacob, sits down with Jacob to talk about the circus. August asks Jacob: "Tell me, do you honestly think this is the most spectacular show on earth?"

Jacob does not respond, so August answers for him: "No. It's nowhere near. It's probably not even the fiftieth most spectacular show on earth.....The whole thing's illusion, Jacob, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's what people want from us. It's what they expect"(103-104).

These are scary words, mainly because it is so easy to read this scene figuratively, and to insert a leading politician (you decide) in the role of August. Water for Elephants may be set in the past, but it sounds very contemporary, indeed, with its exploration of the differences between perception and reality, and the life-threatening dangers associated with belief in illusions. As I read this novel, it was impossible for me not to think of other kinds of illusions that have recently been in the news: the revelation, for example, that no weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq prior to the US invasion, or the more recent finding that the attorney general's office was selecting justice officials based more upon party affiliation than professionalism. The question that I found myself asking in response to this novel was what I could do, like Jacob, to try to extricate myself from the illusions that have fueled death and violence, as well as numerous other decisions that I find repugnant.

Perhaps fueling my political reading of Water for Elephants is the image at the heart of the novel, the elephant. This is going out on an interpretive limb, but the story might be read as a parable about the contemporary Republican party, a party led by two well-intentioned but misguided leaders (Bush and Cheney) who, like August and the circus owner in Water for Elephants, cause many deaths in pursuit of their ambitions. You'll have to read the novel to understand this last comment, but perhaps the ending is a message from Gruen about what needs to happen in November of 2008?

In any case, this is a novel with lots of room for interpretation. History lovers will enjoy the pictures and details. Animal lovers will take satisfaction in the compassion evidenced toward a wide variety of species. Writers and readers alike will learn from the rich language and smart structure of the story. Like the subject it describes, Water For Elephants may not be the most spectacular show on earth, but it definitely entertains.

For more on the relationship between illusion and politics, see this video here, apparantly put together by a college student.

1 comment:

Amanda Gifford said...

This is my favorite book! I love every aspect of it, from the decision to jump on a train, join the circus, the love triangle,the excitement, even the ending! The only thing i did not like was the treatment of the animals, particularly the elephant, and often found it to bring up too many emotions for me. However I never thought a book about a circus could have so much deeper meaning, that almost everyone can relate to their own lives.