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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen - Book Club Discussion Questions

Book Club Discussion Questions

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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants - Courtesy Algonquin Books

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a must read story about a 90 year old man remembering his days with a circus during The Great Depression. Use these book club discussion questions on Water for Elephants to lead your book club's conversation on the story.

Spoiler Warning: These book club discussion questions reveal important details about Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Finish the book before reading on.

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  1. Water for Elephants moves between a story about a circus and a story about an old man in a nursing home. How do the chapters about the older Jacob enrich the story about Jacob’s adventure with the circus? How would the novel be different if Gruen had only written about the younger Jacob, keeping the story linear and never describing Jacob’s life as an old man?

  2. Did the chapters about the nursing home change how you think about older people? In what ways are the doctors and nurses condescending? How is Rosemary different? How do you treat older people?

  3. In chapter two, the twenty-three year old Jacob starts his story by telling us he is a virgin. From the cooch tent to the erections the older Jacob gets when being bathed, sexuality is woven into the whole story. Why do you think Gruen added these details? What role does sexuality play in Water for Elephants?

  4. When you first read the Prologue, who did you think murdered the man? Were you surprised by who the actual murderer was?

  5. The book begins with a quote from Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant…An elephant’s faithful—one hundred percent!” What is the role of faithfulness and loyalty in Water for Elephants? How do different characters define loyalty? (Jacob, Walter, Uncle Al).

  6. Why does Jacob get so mad about Mr. McGuinity lying about carrying water for elephants? Do you see and similarities of temperament between the young Jacob and the old Jacob?

  7. In what ways is Water for Elephants a survival story? A love story? An adventure?

  8. Water for Elephants has a happy ending for Jacob, but not for many other characters. Discuss Walter and Camel’s fates. How does tragedy fit into the story?

  9. There is an “us and them” mentality in the circus between performers and workers. How does Jacob bridge these two classes of people? Why does each group hate another group? Does the circus merely mirror society in an exaggerated way?

  10. Are you satisfied with the end?

  11. In the Author’s Note, Gruen writes that many of the details in the story are factual or come from circus workers’ anecdotes. These true stories include the hippo pickled in formaldehyde, the deceased fat lady being paraded through town and an elephant who repeatedly pulled out her stake and stole lemonade. Gruen did extensive research before writing Water for Elephants. Was her story believable?

  12. Rate Water for Elephants on a scale of 1 to 5.
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