The story is told as a series of memories by Jacob Jankowski, a " ninety-three year-old" man who lives in a nursing home. Jacob is told whatto do.
As the memories begin, Jacob Jankowski is a twenty-three year old Polish American preparing for his final exams as a Cornell Universityveterinary student when he receives the devastating newsthat his parents were killed in a car accident. Jacob’s father was a veterinarian and Jacob had planned to join his practice. When Jacob learns that his father was deeply in debt because he had beentreating animals for free and had mortgaged the family home to provide Jacob an Ivy League education, he has a breakdown and leaves school just short of graduation. In the dark of night, he jumps on atrain only to learn it is a circus train belonging to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. When the owner of the circus, Uncle Al, learns of his training as a vet, he is hired to carefor the circus animals. This consequently leads Jacob to share quarters with a dwarf named Walter (who is known as Kinko to the circus) and his dog Queenie. A few weeks later Jacob is summoned to takea look at Camel, an old man who, after drinking Jamaican ginger extract for many years, can't move his arms or legs. Fearing Camel will be "red-lighted" (referring to the practice of throwing circusworkers off a moving train as either punishment or as severance from the circus to avoid paying wages), he hides him in his room.
The head trainer, August, is a brutal man who abuses the animalsin his care (such as the new elephant Rosie) and the people around him. Alternately, he can be utterly charming. Jacob develops a guarded relationship with August and his wife, Marlena, with whom Jacobfalls in love. August is suspicious of their relationship and beats Marlena and Jacob. Marlena subsequently leaves August and stays at a hotel while she's not performing. Uncle Al then informs...