- Jacob Jankowski – the protagonist, a 93-year-old nursing home resident reminiscing on the time he spent as a circus veterinarian during the Great Depression.
- Marlena – the main love interest and a star performer with the circus. She ran away from home to join the circus and marry August, the equestrian director. She enjoys a special rapport with the horses and cares for them deeply.
- August – Marlena’s husband and the head animal trainer. As a classic batterer, he is alternately charming and brutal, both to the humans and animals. Later in the book, it is suggested that he is a paranoid schizophrenic, to explain his violence.
- Uncle Al – the violent, abusive owner of the circus. He is known for redlighting circus workers. If they were deemed to have committed some particularly egregious offense, they were thrown off while the train was passing over a trestle, presumably with the hope that they would die or be seriously injured.
- Kinko/Walter – a dwarf with whom Jacob shares living quarters on the circus train. Initially, their relationship is rocky, but they develop a strong friendship. At the beginning of the story, he is known as Kinko. Walter is his real name and he only lets his friends call him this. He has a Jack Russell terrier named Queenie, to which he is very attached.
- Camel – is one of the first people Jacob meets when he jumps the train. He is a drunk who is instrumental in getting Jacob a job with the circus. When Camel gets "Jake Leg" from drinking contaminated Jamaican ginger, Jacob and Walter hide him in their car and care for him.
- Rosie – an elephant that Uncle Al buys from another circus. She is believed to be useless until it is discovered that she understands commands only in Polish. She is often the target of August’s rage.
- Rosemary – a nurse in the nursing home where Jacob lives who is especially kind to Jacob, despite the fact that he can be very rude to her.
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