COLUMBIA — Sara Gruen didn’t plan to write a book about the circus. In fact, before researching her novel “Water for Elephants,” she didn’t even remember ever going to one.
A few years ago, though, the author was sitting at her kitchen table drinking tea when she stumbled upon a vintage circus picture in a newspaper. Something clicked inside her head.
“That’s it,” she said.
On Tuesday night, local book enthusiasts filled Launer Auditorium at Columbia College to hear Gruen elaborate on what she learned from her experiences with elephants, circuses and the history of the Great Depression while researching the novel.
“Sara Gruen paints a vivid picture and engages her readers,” said Melissa Carr, director of Daniel Boone Regional Library, during her introduction of Gruen.
The author sat down and her gentle voice filled the room as she read an excerpt from her novel.
“I wanted to capture an accurate snapshot of what the train circus was like,” Gruen said. The subtlety of her voice engaged the audience as she elaborated on a “piece of Americana that has virtually disappeared.”
Sponsored by the Daniel Boone Regional Library, “Water for Elephants” was this year’s selection for the One Read program, which is now in its sixth year. To date, over 2,300 copies of “Water for Elephants” have been checked out.
Janet Hagan, 43, of Columbia recently checked out the book from the library and is in the process of finishing it. She said she came Tuesday night because she was interested to find out how Gruen’s thought process evolved.
“(Hearing the author speak) brings the book to a deeper level,” she said.
Gruen is a native of Canada and moved to the United States in 1999. An award-winning novelist, she made her writing debut with her first book, “Riding Lessons,” in 2004. Gruen said she currently lives with her husband, three children and a collection of animals in a suburb of Chicago and continues writing.
“I include animals in my real world as well as my fictional world,” Gruen said.
Her novel stretches over 70 years of time. The main character, Jacob, narrates from a nursing home and tells the story of his past. After unintentionally joining the circus, Jacob meets a cast of characters with distinct personalities, such as Gruen’s favorite character, Rosie, the elephant. Gruen described Rosie as “anything but stupid, but simply misunderstood.”
“Water for Elephants” was awarded the 2007 Book Sense Book of the Year award for adult fiction from the American Booksellers Association.
“It was the perfect story of a boy running off with the circus even though he didn’t mean to,” Barbara Larkin, 55, said while chatting about the book with fellow members of her book club.
Book club members in attendance said they enjoyed the book.
“I found the whole circus life fascinating,” said Kathy Turner, 56, of Columbia.
Gruen said being able to travel and research interesting subjects for the book was an amazing experience.
“It’s been a lifelong dream that’s come true,” she said.