Worth a Read: Water for Elephants

In last week’s post about preparing for NaNo, I mentioned Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, since it was born out of a NaNoWriMo project and because it’s just a really good novel. I tend to stay in my comfort zone of genre fiction and rarely step outside of it, but this is one of the exceptions that really gripped me. Thankfully, I’m not the only person to think so – the book is a best selling novel, has won multiple awards, and received that ultimate of literary honors: having a lackluster film adaptation.  

Every writer’s dream right there.

Water for Elephants follows Jacob Jankowski during two different points in his life. At age 93, living in a nursing home, Jacob spots the arrival of a traveling circus.  This prompts his recollections of working as a vet for a Depression-era circus. Unlike many stories set in circuses, especially recent musical movies starring a singing Wolverine, the novel does not shy away from depicting how difficult life could be in a travelling circus.

Actual set photo of Hugh Jackman during the filming of The Greatest Showman

There are lots of reasons that this is a fantastic read, but let’s focus specifically on two things Sara Gruen does exceptionally well in this book: the in medias res opening and her use of imagery.

1) In Medias Res

Latin for “into the middle of things,” in medias res means starting off a story, novel, scene, movie – any media, really – in the middle of a high stakes moment, typically during the climax. Think Fight Club. The opening gives the reader (or viewer) just enough to get them hooked, and make them want to know what led up to this exciting moment, and what happens next.

It’s one of the trickiest things to do well, because you’re throwing the audience in with no context for the action. Movies have it a bit easier, because they give visual cues, but for novels you have to rely entirely on the prose. The audience doesn’t know who the heroes are, who the villains are, and why they should care about what’s happening. If done poorly, it leaves the audience confused and disoriented, impatiently waiting for the author to get to the point. If done well, it grips the audience in the moment, making them want to read more to find out how we got to that point in the action.

Water for Elephants starts with a murder, and does it very well.

Sad Clown.jpg
Circus murders make baby clowns cry.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. It doesn’t start with the murder itself. That’s part of how Sara Gruen pulls off in medias res. It starts with Jacob, who has yet to be named, and Grady, who we know nothing about, having a conversation. We know from the brief conversation between Jacob and Grady that Jacob has “a lot to lose right now,” although we don’t know what and why. We find out that Jacob is thinking of leaving something. Again, we don’t know what and why.

Then the band that has been playing in background signals that a disaster is in progress. We get to see some chaos as animals run loose, and Jacob looking for someone named Marlena. He finds her and an elephant – which, since Jacob takes it in stride, we as the reader learn is not an unexpected development. There’s someone else there, someone only identified as “that son of a bitch.”

Then an iron stake is driven through that son of a bitch, “splitting his head like a watermelon.”

And that, right there, is how you do in medias res. See, the mistake many authors would make is starting the book with the actual act of murder. We’d start off with the aforementioned steak and watermelon skull. But, while that is shocking, we’d have absolutely no context. We wouldn’t know who was observing the skull being split, who did the splitting, and whose skull was being split. By taking some time for us to learn a very little about the characters, it grounds us in what’s happening. By taking some time to show us where it’s happening, we have some context. There was a murder at the circus, and now we, the reader, are expecting to find out the why and who and how.

(Spoiler: it wasn’t Colonel Mustard. This time.)

The very thing that happens in the novel is we jump ahead to present day, where Jacob is reminiscing on being old. That abrupt cut lets the reader know they need to settle in, that this is not going to be a high octane thriller, but a slower and more methodical character study. However, the reader also knows there’s a murder coming. You spend the rest of the story trying to guess who is getting murdered. By the time we get there, you probably have someone you hope is the victim, but it never distracts or detracts from the story. Instead, it gives the reader an anchor point, something to look forward to, and makes that moment all the more satisfying when it arrives.

2) Imagery

A well written book transports the reader to the setting of the story, using words to paint a picture in the reader’s head. Sara Gruen did a phenomenal job with this throughout the novel, creating an amazingly immersive reading experience that sucks the reader into the world of the Benzini Bros Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

One thing that makes her imagery so superb is how realistic it is. This is where researching can become incredibly important for an author, because it allows the author to ground the story in reality, which is especially important when writing a novel that takes place in the real world. Ms. Gruen did extensive reading and old-fashioned research, and then went on the road to learn more. She visited the Ringling Circus Museum (more than once), Circus World in Baraboo, and the Kansas City Zoo, where she spent time with an elephant handler.

In short, she absolutely immersed herself in the world of the circus. This meant that when it came time for her to actually write the novel, she was as comfortable and familiar with the setting as you can be without actually being part of a travelling circus in the Great Depression. It means the elements that seem the most unbelievable are actually grounded in reality. In her words, “the history of the American circus is so rich that I plucked many of this story’s more outrageous details from fact or anecdote.” (By the way, if you read the book you should not skip the afterward, which really adds context to the novel and the writing process.)

Another trick Sara Gruen uses very well is “plot paced description,” where she reveals details of the setting to the reader at the same time Jacob notices them. It turns the character’s eyes into windows we look through, so we can see things as he sees them. Jacob is a character in his own right, but he’s also the audience – brand new to the circus, and learning about it at the same time as the reader.

This really shines in Jacob’s first morning on the circus lot. Gruen starts with a wide view, describing the “hundreds of dirty, unshaven men” that “pour from the train and surround it, like ants on candy.” She gives us what we would see if we were there – first we take in the wide details, and then began to notice the specifics. The ramps lowering to let animals off the cars. The way the horses “clomp down the ramps, sorting and blowing.” With just a short paragraph, we’re well immersed in the scene, and have a perfect mental image for what Jacob is seeing. It also establishes, with the “ants on candy” simile, that the workings are a kind of organized chaos, a swarm with a purpose.

Outdoor Cirucs.jpg
Basically, he got to see what comes before this, only it was the 1920’s, so less electric lights and more crushing dread from ongoing economic collapse. 

There are hundreds of other examples, but I’ll content myself with one more: a physical altercation that occurs much later in the book (no context, because no spoilers…just focus on the description). In the scene, everything is described in brief snippets, moments of times glimpsed through the absolute chaos of the fight. It’s a great use of the first-person narrative to help the reader feel the frenzied pace of the conflict. “Now I’m facing the overturned table. Now I’m facing Rosie, who is pulling her leg chain and bellowing. Now we’re standing up again, grasping at each other’s collars and lapels…” It draw the reader into the fight, making them feel like they are there, in that combat, being swung about by a furious assailant and doing their best to hold their ground.

It’s that attention to detail that really immerses the reader, and Sara Gruen carries it throughout the book. Every scene is giving that same loving care to make sure you are as present as the character, and are fully drawn into every moment.

If I haven’t sold you on the book yet, I don’t know what will. It’s a great period piece and character study, woven with some absolutely beautiful language. Check it out. You won’t regret it.

Have any other good examples of in medias res? Or other books with great imagery? Or other reasons Water For Elephants is awesome? Let me know in the comments below!


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