Most helpful critical review
223 of 267 people found the following review helpful
Well researched but lacking
on August 14, 2007
I found this book interesting because of the research Ms. Gruen obviously did on train circuses and depression-era life. I also thought her passages detailing the life of Jake as an old man were the best written things in the book. Since Ms. Gruen is a woman who appears (from her author's photo) to be barely middle-aged, I have to assume that some research went into finding out about the lives of elderly men as well, because she writes these passages with a clear and utterly believable voice that truly resonates.
Unfortunately nothing else in the book resonates nearly as much, and there's a lot lacking here. The young version of Jake never takes off as a character, nor does his entirely manufactured love story with a circus bareback rider. We know from the moment he sees Marlena that she'll obviously be his love interest, but their relationship never actually develops before they're suddenly declaring love for one another and hitting the sack.
Ms. Gruen also fails in her execution of believable villains. Her two main villains are August, a brutal horse trainer who abuses or neglects all of the animals, and "Uncle Al", the cruel circus boss, but their villainy never really jumps off the page. For some reason, she chose to make her main antagonist (August) Jewish. I still don't understand the reasoning behind that, nor do I understand her choice to call him a paranoid schizophrenic as well. Oh and for good measure, he's also a wife beater. He's simply too many things rolled into one. Perhaps if she'd concentrated on one aspect of his brutality, she could have made him more believable. And unfortunately, since his religion really has nothing else to do with him as a character, it's hard not to simply label Ms. Gruen as anti-semitic. Perhaps if she'd actually used the "show, don't tell" philosophy and let us SEE what Uncle Al was doing instead of just hearing about everything second hand from other characters, he wouldn't have seemed so two-dimensional. As it is, I never bought these guys as the towering pillars of pure evil they were obviously supposed to be.
I also never bought Jake, at least not as a young man. One minute he's making a vow to himself that he'll stay with the animals so they won't be hurt, because that's what his dead father would want him to do. Yet, he stands by not once but TWICE and allows August to savagely beat an elephant with a hook. It's hard to respect a character like that. Jake rarely takes any real action; he mostly just stands by while things happen TO him or happen *around* him.
I also felt the book could have benefited from a diagram. In books that take place on ships, there's usually a sketch in the front of the book with all the parts labeled for readers to refer back to so they can understand the action. I had a lot of trouble visualizing the train where a good 40% of the crucial action takes place in this book, and that was a major barrier to getting into the story. Had there been a sketch of it up front with all the sections labeled, those sections of the story would have been much easier to understand.
Overall, I am giving this book three stars because of the research, the informative author's note at the end, and the sections with Jake as an old man. I also really got a kick out of the ending. But on the whole, I would recommend this as a library book or a used book store book -- definitely NOT one you pay full price for.