An historical novel by Sara Gruen

Reviewed by Rebecca Hallam

Reflection, tragedy, perseverance, strength, courage, love and freedom are descriptors that could be used singularly to describe the tale in this novel, however, they weave together to create a very realistic and believable life story in the character of Jacob Jankowski.

Jankowski is a man in his nineties living in a nursing home, forgotten by his five children and predeceased by his wife.  The circus has arrived and residents in the home are rejuvenated in the excitement that it brings to town.  Yet for Jacob, it inspires dreams and memories to resurface as he recalls his life in the 1930’s when he was in his twenties.  As a young man he inadvertently jumps a circus train in the darkness of night to escape from the grief of a terrible family tragedy that has left him orphaned, homeless and poor.

One might say it was his veterinary education that saves him from being “redlighted” from the train when really I believe it was his tenacity to keep fighting for his life.

Jacob was endearing to me.  I felt deeply for him as he struggled to survive under the grueling and filthy conditions of living and working in circus life.  While there was minor love story involved here, it was Jacob that I found captivating, genuine, honest and even heroic.  I had difficulty getting started with this novel, but the movement and fluidness through which the author conveyed the tale in Jacob’s memories had me captivated.

Reflecting on Jacob’s courage and strength in spite of his circumstances, I am reminded in my own life to keep moving forward, no matter what life circumstances develop.  Looking back on your life, you’ll realize that it was all designed to teach you many lessons and that even in the trials there are positive outcomes, if you’re willing to open yourself to the possibilities.

As an aside, my book club pals and I viewed the movie after completing our reading assignment.  As always, the movie is never as good as the book!  If you intend to see the show, read the book first.  It will fill in movie gaps and give you affection for, and a deeper understanding of, the characters while watching the very disjointed film production.

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