About the Book

Book Protagonist: Jacob Jankowski
Publication Date: 2006
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance

Historical Context

Water for Elephants

By Sara Gruen

'Water for Elephants' by Sara Gruen is set in two different centuries with a series of peculiar events that give the novel an interesting historical context

Water for Elephants alternates between two timelines— the early 2000s when the narrator Jacob is in his nineties, and Jacob’s flashbacks to the 1930s. The novel was written in the early 2000s and has some interesting backstories that inspired the author Sara Gruen to base her novel on the context of those specific events in history.

Writing and Publication

Sara Gruen began writing Water for Elephants in the year 2003 after she read an article about a photographer whose works centered on traveling circuses in the 1920s and 1930s. The photographer’s name was Edward J. Kelty.

Sara Gruen then began researching about the circus, interviewing performers, gathering anecdotes, and learning about elephants to get details for the book. According to her, Jacob and Marlena’s love story was entirely from her imagination, but many of the other events in the novel were from anecdotes she gathered in her research.

Jamaica Ginger Extract Tragedy

In Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen created awareness about the victims who became paralyzed as a result of consuming a toxic version of a drink called Jamaica Ginger Extract and known colloquially as ‘’Jake’’.

Jake was a patent medicine that contained 70-80 percent alcohol and was obtainable over the counter at drug stores without a prescription. Jake became more popular in the 1920s during the prohibition of the sale of alcohol in the United States.

In 1921, the government of the United States restricted the original combination of Jake from an over-the-counter product to a prescription-only product. However, a fluid extract version with a bitter taste was allowed in over-the-counter purchases. Manufacturers of this bitter-tasting version of Jake began to seek ways of making it more palatable and so started using ingredients like castor oil and molasses in place of the government-approved bitter-tasting ginger.

In the late 1920s, Harry Gross, president of Hub Products Corporation, began adding a toxic mixture containing a substance called triorthocresyl phosphate (TOCP) to his company’s Jake as an alternative to castor oil.

TOCP later proved to be toxic, damaging nerves especially in the spinal cord and leading to temporary or permanent paralysis. It is estimated that about 50,000 people became paralyzed as a result of drinking Jake adulterated with TOCP. The victims were mostly immigrants and the poor.

Sara Gruen depicted this tragic real-life event in Water for Elephants when the character Camel becomes a victim of permanent paralysis as a result of consuming Jake.

The New Millennium

One of the timelines in the novel is in the early years of the 21st Century. Jacob, the narrator, is not certain about the exact year but he is sure that it is beyond the year 2000. His certainty is because he remembers the frenzy that came in the few months leading to the millennium. In his exact words:

We’re past the millennium, that much I know—such a fuss and bother over nothing, all those young folks clucking with worry and buying canned food because somebody was too lazy to leave space for four digits instead of two

Chapter 1

What is alluded to in the above quote is the Year 2000 Problem, also referred to as the Y2K bug or the Y2K scare. The Y2K bug was a frenzy in the late 1990s  because of an anticipated computer-induced apocalypse that would happen as a result of glitches in the calendar dates of computer programs. This was because, many programs represented four-digit years with only the last two digits, therefore, these programs would not be able to distinguish between the year 1900 and the year 2000 or 1901 and 2001.

There were projections that it would require millions or even billions of dollars to rectify this error in programs. The public was alarmed by these projections and began panic-buying and storing essentials, food, arms, generators, and water in preparation for the resulting damage of the glitch once the year 2000 begins. Fortunately, the fear proved unfounded as no significant damage occurred when the new millennium eventually began.

The Great Depression and the 1930s Circus

The Great Depression was a period of major economic decline that took place from 1929 all through the 1930s  in the United States and globally as a result of a crash in stock prices.

The far-reaching poverty and hardship is reflected in the plot as seen in instances like of Jacob’s classmates who had to drop out of school because of poverty; Jacob’s father who could not keep his veterinary practice afloat because his clients could not afford monetary payment for his services; Jacob’s witnessing homeless people in a hobo camp; Walter’s worry that they would not be able to survive if they elope from the Benzini Brothers Circus; and the collapse of many circuses.

Sara Gruen’s depiction of the train circus of the era was accurate because, at that time, most circuses traveled across the country by train with all their members, animals, and equipment on board. And even the Ringling Brothers Circus mentioned in the novel is based on a real circus.

Also, it is believed that there were many cases of murder, throwing people off a moving train, and animal abuse in the traveling circuses of the time and Gruen vividly captures these details in the novel.


Is the Benzini Brothers Circus real?

No, the Benzini Brothers Circus is not real. It is a fictitious circus used by Sara Gruen in her novel Water for Elephants.
However, a real circus was mentioned in the novel, which is the Ringling Brothers Circus but it was just a few mentions and not the main setting for the actions in the story.

Is Water for Elephants a true story?

Water for Elephants is not a true story. However it may feels like a true story to some readers because the novel is a product of a well-conducted research that produced many useful events.

What inspired Sara Gruen to write Water for Elephants?

Sara Gruen was inspired to write Water for Elephants by an article she read in the Chicago Tribune about a photographer called Edward J. Kelty who followed circuses around the United States, shooting photographs of them.

Onyekachi Osuji
About Onyekachi Osuji
Onyekachi is a lecturer of Public Administration and a Literature enthusiast. After gaining accreditation in English Literature, Onyeka analyzes novels on Book Analysis, whilst working as an academic and writing short stories.
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap
Share to...