Jake: Background information when reading Water for Elephants

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Water for Elephants

A Novel

by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
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  • First Published:
    May 2006, 335 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2007, 368 pages

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Beyond the Book:
Jake

Print Review

Sara Gruen's first novel, Riding Lessons, was published in 2004. She is an animal lover who lives with her husband, three children, five cats, two goats, a dog, and a horse in an environmental community north of Chicago. She says that she was a day away from starting a different book when she saw an article in the Chicago Tribune about a photographer who documented train circuses during the 1920s and 1930s - she was immediately hooked. Within weeks she'd tracked down many out of print books on the subject and spent days at the Ringling Circus Museum. Her research took a full year, and many of the more extraordinary scenes in the book are based on fact or anecdote (as Gruen points out the distinction between the two in circus history is famously blurred!)

In addition to the glamorous aspects of circus life, Gruen also shows many of the harsh realities of life during the depression, such as Jamaica ginger paralysis which crippled approximately 100,000 Americans in 1930 and 1931, but is virtually forgotten today as the people effected lived on the fringe of society.

"Jake" had been legally sold for medicinal purposes since the Civil War and, because it was 70% alcohol, was widely used during prohibition (1920-1933) as a means of legally consuming alcohol (contrary to common belief, the consumption of alcohol was legal during prohibition, it was the production, distribution and sale that was prohibited). However, in 1930, the manufacturer of Jake decided to water the product with cheap, tasteless triorthocresyl phosphate (TCP). The highly toxic result (TCP is also used as a pesticide) caused temporary or permanent paralysis in 50-100,000 people.

May 2006

This article was originally published in July 2006, and has been updated for the May 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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