What kid doesn't dream of running away to join the circus someday? Jacob Jankowski really didn't have that in mind, though, the night he left his ruined past behind him and hopped aboard a train passing through. But there he was, suddenly a part of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a Depression-era outfit that traveled from town to town, bringing entertainment to downtrodden America.
For the crowds who came, the show was a chance to have some fun in an otherwise trying time. For the performers and workmen, they dealt with the drama of life on the road, and a very real subculture within their entourage. Crossing the invisible lines of this heirarchy meant risking your livelihood, and perhaps even your life! Jacob, new to all of this, has to catch on pretty quickly to survive. With his strong sense of honor, it will be hard for him to swallow orders from a cold hearted ringmaster, Uncle Al and his dual personalitied manager, August.
But these times are mere memories for Jacob today, as he waits in the nursing home for something, anything worth happening to happen to him once again. The staff, except for the kindly nurse Rosemary, dismiss him as a cantankerous old man who disturbs their routine. His family faithfully visits each Sunday, but once the generations get beyond his own 5 children, his memories of who's who become a little hazy! This week, he's particularly eager for his visitors to arrive, so they can take him to the circus that's in town. Seeing the big top springing up across the street has Jacob remembering his seven years of traveling with the circus, long ago.
This is a story about a young man who loses everything and must begin again, about his first love, and about an elephant named Rosie who changes his life forever. Jacob's story is set against the backdrop of 1930s circus life. Many of the scenes played out in the book are based upon yarns the author discovered as she researched period circus stories. Prohibition is touched upon as well.
One of my favorite aspects of this story, aside from the smart writing and absorbing plot lines, is the character development, especially with the main character, Jacob. In spite of his advanced age, he still wants to live. His body and yes, even his mind may be slow these days, but he is as human as the next person and wants to enjoy his time left on this earth. Working in the medical field with mostly geriatric patients, I see this every day! I feel all too often it's easy for us "young folks" to forget that our elders once stood where we are standing, and of course they are going to get annoyed if they are treated like children who can't handle themselves.
This is one of those books I just couldn't put down, and that I found myself making time for so I could get back in the midst of the story. Also, having come from an abusive first marriage into a healthy loving relationship with my husband today, I can really relate to Marlena, the equestrian acrobat, and her plight.
One of my favorite characters was Walter, a dwarf who acts as a clown in the show. His mother sold him to the show as a young teenager and he feels stuck as a performer because his body is not built for farm work and his appearance makes some people in society avoid him. How could he survive without the circus in that day and age?
The book includes black and white photos from the archives of various circuses that were active at this time in history, including Ringling Brothers. A warning to those who may not care to read or see such things, there is a graphic, albeit hysterically comical, description of the show the busty Barbara puts on in the "cooch tent" for the men, one topless photo, and some adulterous acts described in detail. I did not feel, however, that these elements took away from the overall work and this novel is well worth your time.