Books Like Water for Elephants
The idea of leaving all your worries behind and running off to join a traveling circus has been a popular trope in movies and books for many years. However, in her 2006 novel Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen showed that the circus life might not have been as glamorous as it appeared from the outside. The protagonist of the book, Jacob Jankowsi, discovers this the hard way when his parents die in a car accident just before he could complete his final exams as a veterinary student. A distraught Jacob ends up on a circus train where he manages to find work caring for the animals. This gives Jacob a behind the scenes glimpse of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. The book went on to receive numerous awards and nominations as well as a film adaptation in 2011 starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. Fans of the story looking for more gritty, circus related tales should check out the following books like Water for Elephants.
by Ellen Bryson
The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is the debut novel by Ellen Bryson and has been described by critics as Water for Elephants meets Geek Love. The protagonist, Bartholomew Fortuno, is the "World's Thinnest Man" and uses this unusual gift to work at the spectacular American Museum for P. T. Barnum. Fortuno feels that he is at the peak of his career, but finds his enthusiasm for the job beginning to waver after working at the museum for ten years. The, one day, a mysterious veiled woman enters the picture and Fortuno finds himself instructed by Barnum himself to discover her secrets. This task forces Fortuno to take a closer look at his own identity as well as his usual routine is completely upended.
by Carolyn Turgeon
Just as Jacob Jankowsi joined the circus in Water for Elephants as a way to cope with the trauma in his life, so does the protagonist of Rain Village, Tessa. Growing up in an isolated Midwestern community, Tessa had to endure ridicule from her family as well as other children due to her diminutive size, which makes her unsuitable for farm work. Tessa sees a glimmer of hope when a new librarian, Mary, shows up in town and teaches her not only to read, but to believe in herself as well. Unfortunately, her life takes a darker turn again when her father begins abusing her and she loses her newfound mentor as well. However, inspired by the stories Mary told her, Tessa runs off to join the circus, where she finds work as a trapeze artist. Despite her newfound happiness, Tessa is still haunted by her past. When a stranger who knew Mary shows up one day out of the blue, Tessa must choose between staying with her new family and the circus or following the stranger to a place that might help her understand why Mary died.
by Samuel Hawley
Bad Elephant Far Stream by Samuel Hawley is historical fiction, just like Water for Elephants, but in this book the story unfolds through the eyes of an elephant. Whereas it is Jacob who has flashbacks about his time with the circus when he is near the end of his life, here it is Far Stream the elephant who reflects on her life as she faces execution by humans for being "bad." The book explores everything from when she was captured as a baby elephant in the forests of Ceylon, to being sent to work at a circus in America under the name of "Topsy." Her career in the circus spans thirty years and the book details all the ups and downs that she experiences along the way. Even though telling a story from the perspective of an elephant make it sound like fantasy, Samuel Hawley actually spent a lot of time meticulously researching these fascinating animals to make the story as authentic as possible.
by Stewart O'Nan
Tragedy struck during a Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus performance in 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut. Between 6,000 and 8,000 people were attending the afternoon performance when a fire broke out. When a fire broke out it quickly started burning out of control due to the paraffin and gasoline mixture that was used to waterproof the big tent. This left all the people, who were mostly women and children, trapped inside the tent as it went up in flames. In the end, almost 200 people perished in the disaster, while more than 700 others were left injured. It was not just the flames that contributed to the fatalities, but also the ensuing chaos. Stewart O'Nan made use of the interviews from the survivors of the disaster to write this story and give readers a realistic account of what happened on that fateful day at the circus.
by Robert Hough
The Final Confession of Mabel Stark is a novel, but it is based on the real-life circus superstar, Mabel Stark. She was one of America's most eccentric celebrities and stole the show at the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus where she was a renowned tiger trainer. This book follows a similar narrative structure as Water for Elephants, with an eighty year old Mabel thinking back to her life in the circus and how it all began when she escaped from a mental institution only to find employment as a burlesque dancer. Like Water for Elephants, her story is not just of heartache and triumphs, but also dark secrets and comic escapades. One area where it deviates from Water for Elephants is that it offers a glimpse into the lives of the top performers at a circus, instead of the ordinary workers.