Friday, August 15, 2008

Water for Elephants

This was a book club pick. It's a novel set partly in a traveling circus in 1930 and partly in a nursing home circa 2000. I particularly enjoyed the details about life in a traveling circus. The plot is a little cheesy, a little trite, and the writing is mediocre, but it's constructed well, with an ending revelation that I hadn't guessed. Seems like it would make a good movie. (I just Googled and I see it may be headed for the screen.) It borrows from Fried Green Tomatoes with its elderly nursing home patient telling a story of his younger years, the theme of creating family with non-blood relatives, use of trains/railroad as a key component of the plot, race (FGT) or class (WFE) issues, mentally-ill abusive husband, and an end revelation about a murder.

The novel highlights an interesting bit of trivia about Prohibition. Jamaican Ginger Extract ("Jake") was a medicine that was 70-80% ethyl alcohol and so was used as a beverage by some during Prohibition. To prevent people from drinking it for non-medicinal purposes, the U.S. Treasury Dept decreed that it had to be altered with ginger solids that made it bitter. Supplies of Jake were occassionally tested by the Dept. of Agriculture to make sure the ginger was present. Amateur chemists found a way to make Jake without the ginger, but with another chemical addition that tricked the ginger tests. As it turned out, their additive was a neurotoxin that caused partial paralysis. It is believed to have left thousands or tens of thousands of people partially paralyzed, typically with a characteristic odd gait ("Jake leg"). More details on Wikipedia here.

In an afterword, the author, Sara Gruen, describes a professional battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse that took an elephant as a victim (and a spoiler alert if you're paying attention):
In 1903, an elephant named Topsy killed her trainer after he fed her a lit cigarette. Most circus elephants at the time were forgiven a killing or two -- as long as they didn't kill a [townsperson] -- but this was Topsy's third strike. Topsy's owners at Coney Island's Luna Park decided to turn her execution into a public spectacle, but the announcement that they were going to hang her met with uproar -- after all, wasn't hanging a cruel and unusual punishment? Ever resourceful, Topsy's owners contracted Thomas Edison. For years, Edison had been "proving" the dangers of rival George Westinghouse's alternating current by publicly electrocuting stray dogs and cats, along with the occasional horse or cow -- but nothing as ambitious as an elephant. He accepted the challenge. Because the electric chair had replaced the gallows as New York's official method of execution, the protests stopped.
Accounts differ [as to whether cyanide-laced carrots were also involved], but what is not disputed is that Edison brought a movie camera, had Topsy strapped into copper-lined sandals, and shot sixty-six hundred volts through her in front of fifteen hundred [soulless, depraved, horrible] spectators, killing her in about ten seconds. Edison, convinced that this feat discredited alternating current, went on to show the film to audiences across the country.

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