Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants

An Interactive Guide

Blonde Bombshells, Femme Fatales, and Other Desperate Women

The Circus Girl posterThe Circus Girl posterThe Circus Girl posterPerils of Pauline movie poster

Homeless and out of work during the Great Depression, a young man discovers a livelihood in a world he never knew existed.  

Jacob Jankowski, reeling in grief over the loss of family and future in a single blow, gets a major life lesson when he suffers the quiet brutality of August, the owner and ringmaster of the Benzini Bros. Circus.  There he also meets the beautiful Marlena and his surprising charge, Rosie the Elephant. He is witness as the novel's two-footed and four-footed heroines struggle against their enslavement. Together Jacob, Marlena and Rosie find a home in each other. 

Author Sara Gruen artfully counterposes the escapist romance of the circus, celebrated in a wonderful collection of circus posters and photographs from the Library of Congress, versus the stark realities of circus life, as demonstrated in Marlena's journey toward a tainted freedom.
Prohibition poster
Although it may seem close to the bone in this day and age, the dichotomy between the highs of the 1920s versus the lows of the 1930s shaped Marlena's world and took Americans by surprise.  In the face of their desperation, young unattached women navigated this economic and cultural shift with a variety of strategies.  In the 1930s, as both suitors and jobs were few, the single working-class girl often found herself in a very difficult place with few avenues for survival, especially if she was estranged from her family.

For some, their model may have been the heroine of The Perils of Pauline, a movie serial popular in their youth in which the main character often hangs on with her fingernails in the face of danger. Others sought refuge in show business, with its glittering promise of wealth and fame.  Some found their way to Europe.  Some chose to ride the rails, along with an army of unemployed men, while still others devised their own plans for survival.  Some of these young women had just a decade before accompanied rich college boys and gangsters to speakeasies and other illicit parties as flappers.

The post-World War I era saw all American youth facing their own mortality in the wake of the ravages of war. Prohibition, race riots, growing gangsterism and political corruption deepened their cynicism.  Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby speak to the wild abandon of the this Lost Generation, from which flappers, youth culture, and bathtub gin were born. (However, some readers may prefer to read Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark as a critical companion to these works.)

Betty BoopFemales as playthings, under the guise of liberation -- women had, after all, won the vote -- complete with short skirts, uninhibited dancing, smoking, illegal drinking and the suggestion of unmarried sex, was a break with the mores of the Victorian era. 
Betty Boop, a scantily clad creation of animation artist Max Fleischer, exemplifies this ideal.  Both naughty and naive, this animated icon was based on Helen Kane, an actual flapper and perhaps the original "Boop-boop-a-doop" girl.  Eventually, the Hollywood Code of 1930 forced Betty to cover up, but not before she introduced Popeye the Sailor Man to movie audiences. The work of The Fleischer Brothers and the concept of female image as sales instrument, is covered in Serious Business by Stefan Kanfer. 

Another icon, the so-called "dumb" blonde, also has its roots in this era, later morphing into the sales-driven belief that "Blondes have more fun."  How this image seeped into the nation's cultural consciousness through film and literature is further explored in the powerful and whimsical 2008 exhibition catalog of The Kemper Art Museum's Beauty and the Blonde: An Exploration of American Art and Popular Culture.

Happy Days Are Here Again: Related Reading and Viewing

The transition between the "anything goes" decade and a decade of economic deprivation produced an odd clash and mash up of several cultural constructs and mores.  These books and films help provide the historical and cultural background for Water for Elephants and the highs and lows of 1920s and 1930s America.  Ask at your neighborhood library, or visit our online catalog to see which are available in audio, large print or as e-books.

Water for Elephants bookThe Chaperone book cover
Design For Living DVD coverThe Great Gatsby book coverSome Like It Hot DVD cover

Reading Group Guides

American suffrage image courtesy www.miriamreed.com