Published by Workman Publishing, New York 2006.
Life is a Circus, or so they say. Jacob Jankowski remembers the saying well. In fact, he remembers it better than who his grandchildren are, or are they his great-grandchildren? Jacob is ninety something years old, living out his remaining days in a nursing home. When the commotion of the grey-hairs gawking out the window gets his attention, he realizes it’s the circus that has come to town.
Back up seventy years to 1931 and there is Jacob, a young Cornell student ready to take his exams to become a veterinarian like his father. Unexpectedly, he is faced with the death of both his parents and the realization that what he thought was his father’s thriving veterinarian business was actually paid in barter; beans and eggs, a pound of potatoes or a chicken or two. His father had mortgaged their home to pay for Jacob’s college education. He is orphaned and penniless. Too paralyzed by grief and shock to pass the exam, Jacob walks along the edge of town, following the railroad tracks to nowhere. In an impromptu burst of energy, he is swiftly running beside the cars and throwing himself onto the moving train.
Thus began Jacob’s adventure into the circus world. A young man, naive of life outside his cushy college dorm, is abruptly indoctrinated in a whole new form of education. For a brief, life changing time in his life, The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth becomes his new home.
Gruen lets us tag along with Jacob as he tells his story. Toggling between his present day problems of losing his short term memory and his dignity and recanting his life on the circus train, you will be glad you took the ride. A historical novel, Gruen did her research well and the life of Jacob is credible and extraordinary. Jacob’s strange bedfellows on the train are a dwarf named Kinko and an old roust-a-bout named Camel. As the hierarchy of the circus plays out in incredible detail, we also get to meet the two loves of Jacob’s life; the beautiful and talented Marlena and a 6000 pound bull elephant named Rosie. It’s a coming of age story, complete with virtues and villains, of love and loss and of remembering a world that was both magnificent and horrendous.
Joanne Tailele has been a full time resident of Marco Island for two years. Born in Youngstown, her last “home” for 12 years was Columbus, Ohio. Between Joanne and her husband, she has six children and nine grandchildren. She works as a receptionist for a local real estate company.