As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.
Jacob’s aunt, Fate McCrery, is sick and tired of how Jacob is procrastinating finishing his veterinary degree. So one morning when she sees an advertisement in the paper for an animal caretaker for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, she gives them a call and finds out that no degree is required for the position. The circus is passing through their town the next day and Aunt Fate acts fast. One train ticket later, Jacob finds himself a part of the circus’s staff.
Jacob is overwhelmed by the change to his quality of life. The train is dirty and old, the people are not much different. The circus is obviously on the brink of bankruptcy and Jacob wonders if his Aunt put him here to be abandoned far away when the circus fails.
Aside from being expected to keep all of the circuses horses, lions, tigers, and bears healthy, Jacob is also expected to figure out what is wrong with the circus’s elephant. Animal trainer August Benzini, a cousin to the show’s owners, had been talked into buying the elephant by his wife in hopes of increasing ticket sales, but so far the elephant refused to be trained.
When he first sees the elephant, bloodstains speckle its sides. One of the other caretakers tells Jacob they are from where August lashed it for its disobedience. Jacob tries to clean the deeper lesions, but the elephant turns away every time he tries to get near the wounds. This stubborn refusal to receive assistance reminds Jacob strongly of his ex-girlfriend Rosie, and he names the elephant in her honor.
The next day Jacob finds a beautiful woman in Rosie’s pen, using a hose to wash away the blood. The elephant seems to like this woman, even taking food from her arms. Jacob has a Bright Idea. He approaches the woman, and asks her if he can work with her to gentle Rosie. She accepts and introduces herself as Marlena Benzini, August’s wife.
August agrees to turn over training to the couple, condemning the animal as hopeless. Slowly, Jacob and Marlena work on gaining the elephant’s trust, spending almost all of their free time together in the pen.
As they work together, they tell each other about their lives. Jacob confesses to being afraid of the future, so much that he purposefully ‘forgot’ to take a class he needed to graduate in order to prolong his time at the university. Marlena tells of her passion for horse riding, and how she married August to fulfill that dream. She’s pretty enough that Jacob immediately forgives this major character flaw. One night as they talk about their dreams for the future, Rosie actually allows Jacob to brush her sides.
From that moment on training Rosie progressed very quickly. Within a week Marlena is riding her back as the elephant followed Jacob around the ring. Everything is falling into place.
Unfortunately, the rest of Jacob’s job is falling apart. August becomes jealous of the amount of time Jacob is spending with his wife, and his training methods became increasingly more vicious to the other animals Jacob had to attend to. Bruises appeared on Marlena’s arms, and she refused to tell Jacob how they got there.
Jacob finally confronts August, and the shouting match quickly escalates into a fistfight.
Jacob wakes up the next day with a hazy memory of spectacularly loosing the fight and looks around to discover he’s in Rosie’s stall. Marlena is crouched next to him, bandaging various injuries. She’s crying, and when he asks her what’s wrong she tells him that she’s in love with him. This is very convenient, because Jacob had just figured out he feels the same way for her. Unfortunately, if Marlena leaves her husband, she’ll have to give up her both her show-riding career, and certainly doom Rosie to a life of abuse.
So they decide the only option is to start a secret relationship.
August finds out.
He persuades his cousins to give Jacob an ultimatum: either Rosie performs in the next week’s circus act, or he will take over her training.
Rosie is nearly ready to perform, but the day before the performance the lovers find out that August will be in the ring as the routine is performed. Rosie is still terrified of him, and Jacob worries that he will be forced off of the train.
The performance goes perfectly, and ticket sales soar.
Still, fall is coming and Jacob begins to think of finishing his degree. Rosie is safe now, as sole training responsibility has been given to Marlena. Marlena though, is still being abused and August promises Jacob that the moment he leaves he will never hit his wife again.
So Jacob turns in his resignation. Marlena is heartbroken, but when he asks her if she would leave with him, she balks.
The circus returns to Jacob’s hometown and after the final performance Jacob returns to Aunt Fate’s home. He tells her that he’s ready to become a veterinarian. She agrees to let him return, and a year later Jacob graduates. He begins practicing at the city’s zoo. His employers are amazed at his knowledge about the exotic animals, and he tells them a woman named Rosie that taught him everything he knows.