This book, by Sara Gruen, tells the story of Jacob Jankowski. When we first meet Jacob, he’s an old man in a nursing home, who is realizing he has trouble remembering the people who come to visit him each Sunday afternoon. But when Jacob goes to sleep, he’s taken back (as are we the readers) some 70 years to the summer he ran away with the circus. Jacob spontaneously hops a railcar one night and finds himself aboard a circus train. A previous vet-in-training, Jacob becomes the caretaker of the circus animals.
Now, this circus is no Ringling Bros. Some shady actions take place daily, and the cruelty to animals claim that’s still charged to circuses these days is wholly felt. But Jacob meets Marlena and becomes infatuated. The rest of the book tells his story with the circus - the people he meets, the traveling, the acts, the food, the audiences and the sweetest pachyderm of which you've ever read.
This was one of those books that I wasn’t sure I’d like, so I postponed reading it. But then I kept seeing other people reading it, so I thought I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did. Gruen paints such a brilliant picture of life on a circus train. She thoroughly researched the goings on of circus folk in the 1930s; she also received the rights to use some old photos throughout the book. These real photos only go to prove she’s not making much of this stuff up (bearded ladies, ball-balancing elephants, diseases caused by breaking the laws of prohibition). The story is mesmerizing and flows wonderfully.