The Circus World Museum provided some props for the movie version of Water for Elephants. The gift shop also had Sara Gruen's novel in paperback. (Got it for less than Amazon's currently asking, yay!) Intriguing stuff for Book Review No. 17.
Ms Gruen wrote the book as a National Novel Writing Month project. She's a technical writer by profession, but evidently a decent researcher. The circus is a hard-knock life under the best of circumstances, and the hardscrabble train shows of the Great Depression are not operating under the best of circumstances. Payless paydays, arbitrary firings, vice squad raids, unscheduled changes in the route so as to be able to cannibalize acts from failed circuses, it's all there. And thus the plot. With a lot of material you'll also find in the Cold Spring Shops research files, and a lot more.
The protagonist is the circus veterinarian. In those days, circuses didn't advertise in Variety or in Journal of the American Medical Association for veterinarians. Read the book to find out how he lands the job.
He's correct about this, though: a proper circus has pachyderms and a train.
The Karlson Brothers Circus will have a herd of elephants. Probably some of the seamier details of the traveling circus will be omitted.
What intrigues about the book is the provision of supplemental material. First, there's an interview with the author, attesting to the research she did. Less flamboyant than a barker offering $100 to anyone who can demonstrate that it's not real, but probably helpful to modern audiences. (A good circus story has the "no s***, this really happened" that characterizes a proper sea story.) There are also some book-group discussion questions. Some reminded me of questions in my dad's fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade readers. (The things you learn: the seventh-year reader is a virtual book.) Others might be material for deeper analysis. "In what ways and to what degree do [the impresario's] maneuvers and practices regarding the defunct [competing] circus reflect traditional American business practices? How would you compare his behavior with that of major businessmen and financiers of today? What alternative actions would you prefer?"
The conversation with the author and the discussion questions also make the case for preserving threads of a common culture. Genesis 28:11. Apparently there's more from Genesis 28 to 34 for the close reader.
(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)