During today's class, I kept thinking about a novel called Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Marketed as a light summer read and now in theaters as a romance staring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, the book defied my expectations: it's a gritty look at life on a Depression-era railroad circus. Romance is a plot element and an event in the main character's life, but the struggles that occupy center stage in the book involve simply trying to survive in this environment--don't fall off the train, get and then keep a job, don't get thrown off the train, and so on.
I thought about the book during "All Used Up" in class--one of Gruen's great strengths as a writer are her sympathetic, not white-washed portrayals of aging characters. Water for Elephants takes place in the recollections of an old man who's forgotten in a nursing home, and even in the main story, the protagonist tries to save an old man who's crippled from jake foot.
Another of the novel's characters travels the rails with his dog, Queenie. I wonder if Gruen had heard the song "Queen of the Rails."
The novel also tackles the myriad class, ethnic, and racial divisions and conflicts within the traveling circus and the broader culture of the time. Gruen blew me away with how sparsely and powerfully she could depict various social issues through historical detail and myth. It's not at all a sexy novel, so I'm not sure how it became a bestseller or a presumably sexy movie, but I'm not crying about it.
Of course the historical accounts we're reading for class are at least as fun as a contemporary novel, but it's interesting that all these themes still speak to a popular audience.