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Gruen has said that the backbone of her story parallels the biblical story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis.
In the beginning of the novel, Jacob mocks another resident of the nursing home who claims to have worked in the circus and carried water for the elephants. The circus train only had a limited amount of water on board, and elephants can drink 100-300 litres per day (approximately 25-75 gallons).
In a later flashback to Jacob's younger years, Jacob is brought to Uncle Al, the manager of the circus, who taunts him with "You want to carry water for elephants, I suppose?"