I have always been an avid reader. As a child I would read anything, including the cereal box if there was nothing else around. I always preferred my books to tell a story that started at one point in time and moved forward. One thing I couldn't stand was books that, in my mind, "hopped around" from one time period to another.
When I grew up and began my work with children and books, I noticed that this was a widespread dislike among all the children I knew. The more I understood about child development, the more this made sense to me. Children don't pay much attention to their short pasts; they are focused on the life to come, always leaning a bit forward. It's no wonder that they prefer their stories to be linear, without strange and confusing jumps forward and back in time.
I can only speak for myself, but the older I get the more I look back at the past--hopefully gleaning lessons learned and applying them to what happens currently--so I am more tolerant of stories that "hop" from one time to another and back again. And that thought, finally, brings me to the book, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen (2006).
Actually, it's not so much that I've forgotten. It's more like I've stopped keeping track. 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--but that could have been last month or three years ago. And besides, what does it really matter? What's the difference between three weeks or three years or even three decades of mushy peas, tapioca, and Depends undergarments?
Circuses have always made me uneasy, and rightly so, it turns out. In Water for Elephants an old man living in a nursing home and dealing with his present infirmities remembers his past adventures as a young circus vet.
I know my children, don't get me wrong--but these are not my children. These are the children of my children, and their children, too, and maybe even theirs. Did I coo into their baby faces? Did I dandle them on my knee? I had three sons and two daughters, a houseful indeed, and none of them exactly held back. You multiply five by four and then by five again, and it's no wonder I forget how some of them fit in. It doesn't help that they take turns coming to see me, because even if I manage to commit one group to memory they may not come around again for another eight or nine months, by which time I've forgotten whatever it was I may have known.
You'll learn a lot about history and circuses and animals and cruelty and kindness when you read this book. That's really all I need to tell you, other than the quotes in this color that I have sprinkled here and there throughout this post. That, and the fact that this book kept me reading up into the early morning hours--always my test of a great read.
I open the orangutan's door and set a pan of fruits, vegetables, and nuts on the floor. As I close it, her long arm reaches through the bars. She points at an orange in another pan.
"That? You want that?"
She continues to point, blinking at me with close-set eyes. Her features are concave, her face a wide platter fringed with red hair. She's the most outrageous and beautiful thing I've ever seen.
"Here," I say, handing her the orange. "You can have it."
She takes it and sets it on the floor. Then she reaches out again. After several seconds of serious misgivings, I hold out my hand. She wraps her long fingers around it, then lets go. She sits on her haunches and peel her orange.
I stare in amazement. She was thanking me.