- The Good: Forbidden romance in a well-researched 1930’s circus
- The Bad: Predictable plot; flat characters
- The Literary: Historical pictures at the start of each chapter
With his life in shambles, Jacob Jankowski joins the circus. No really, when Jacob’s parents die in a car crash weeks before his final veterinary exams, Jacob finds his parents were in extreme debt, and as soon as he finishes the semester, he’ll be homeless. He wanders the streets without a plan, eventually jumping on a passing train, entering a world of freaks and misfits who perform in a different town every night.
Set in 1932, you can feel the struggle of daily life for both the circus employees and, to some extent, the regular folk in need of an escape from their daily lives. I really love the sense of time and place and the research that’s gone into the setting, particularly the circus. The strict class system between the working men and the performers, the bootleg alcohol, and young boys in the hobo jungle who tie their shoes to their feet when they sleep, all set the tone for this post-Depression/Prohibition era story.
Jacob performs menial tasks until the circus leaders recognize his education (even if he didn’t actually finish school), and he’s put in charge of caring for all the animals. He works closely with August, the charming yet abusive animal trainer, and his wife Marlena, the beautiful young starlet of liberty horse show. The love story that develops between Jacob and Marlena is classic forbidden-love-at-first-sight, but because August has no redeeming qualities, as a reader you have no qualms about rooting for the relationship.
The plot comes in second to the setting. The romance isn’t nuanced and Marlena’s best qualities are her love for animals and her ability to pull off pink sequins. The antagonists are easy to spot because they’re so cruel and unredeemable. August in particular is violent, which is in turn blamed on his mental illness, which makes the affair seem justified. The evil owner Uncle Al and his lackie Blackie seek money and power only, and while their ending is satisfying, it’s predictable.
Enter the real star of the book, Rosie, an elephant who costs so much money that many of the workers go without pay for weeks. Unfortunately, she seems un-trainable, stupid, and obstinate, and must endures beatings by August. That is, until Jacob breaks through to her, and the tides of the circus and those within it seem to change. Rosie is plucky, smart, sensitive, funny, and eventually, serves justice. She’s based on several historical elephants, all of whom deserve to be researched and remembered on their own merit.
Lastly, the frame story about 93-year-old Jacob trapped in a nursing home, waiting hopefully for his family to take him to the circus in town, and the reveal of Jacob’s 23-year-old circus adventure is well done. All the highs and lows are in the right places, and I think I like elderly Jacob better than his younger self.
If you are in the mood for a sensitive, dramatic greeting-card love story about people who care about animals, this may be for you!