Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: Classroom Ideas

Posted April 12, 2011 by Sara | Novel Novice 5 Comments

There is so much to love about Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants, from the lush and magical setting of a 1930s circus, to the sweeping forbidden romance, to the heartbreaking recollections of narrator Jacob Jankowski.

But besides offering a sweep-you-off-your-feet reading experience (and a highly-anticipated movie adaptation late this month), there are plenty of opportunities to study the history of this time period — and the magic of early 20th century circuses — in the classroom. And hey, if you have to read a book for school, why not choose one that has Robert Pattinson on the cover, right?

Here’s a brief look at incorporating the history behind Water for Elephants into the classroom:

Water for Elephants: Historical Tie-ins

Circus life in the early 1930s is quite obviously the most important historical aspect to Water for Elephants. In fact, the book even features photos from circuses around this time.

And it was an interesting time for circuses — which truly peaked by the 1920s. But by the end of the decade, and into the early 1930s, the American circus was struggling. America was on the brink of financial ruin, as 1929 saw the beginning of the Great Depression. Transportation and communication was vastly improving, making the arrival of the circus train far less impressive than it once was. And audiences were far more intrigued by the new talking motion pictures than they were by the old circus acts.

In short, in the 1930s, the circus was losing its audiences — and this time period saw the downfall of many touring circuses. Not only were financial problems wide-spread, but cities were growing and expanding, leaving little room for circuses to build their tents and hold their street parades. And with entertainment money a very small budget for most Americans, many were taking their business to the most cost-effective, and newer delights of the cinema.

Even the so-called king of the American circus, John Ringling, fell into financial ruin. In 1932, Ringling lost control of his circus and died just a few years later in New York City. Of course, that wasn’t the end of the circus. In 1938, as America started to emerge from the Depression, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus re-emerged transformed, and once again began entertaining audiences with a new series of attractions. And though the circus has never quite been the same since, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey still tour the country today.

Learn more about this time period by checking out books at your local library. Here are some specific subjects you can explore:

  • U.S. circuses in the 1920s & 1930s
  • Rise & fall of the U.S. circus
  • The Great Depression
  • Urban growth in the U.S. in the 1930s
  • The rise of talking movies
  • Changes to transportation & communication in the U.S. in the 1930s

What are some other aspects you can think of that relate to Water for Elephants? Tell us in the comments!

And for a look at what life was really like in a 1930s-era circus, here are some archived videos showing the set-up and roustabouts:

Sara | Novel Novice

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