The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert
On the eve of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist by trade, con man by birth, isn’t quite sure how it will change him or his city. Omaha still has the marks of a filthy Wild West town, even as it attempts to achieve the grandeur and respectability of nearby Chicago. But when he crosses paths with the beautiful and enigmatic Cecily, his whole purpose shifts and the fair becomes the backdrop to their love affair.
One of a traveling troupe of actors that has descended on the city, Cecily works in the Midway’s Chamber of Horrors, where she loses her head hourly on a guillotine playing Marie Antoinette. And after closing, she rushes off, clinging protectively to a mysterious carpetbag, never giving Ferret a second glance. But a moonlit ride on the swan gondola, a boat on the lagoon of the New White City, changes everything, and the fair’s magic begins to take its effect. (via Goodreads)
I’ve always taken note of the fact that the Wizard of Oz was from Omaha. I suppose that considering that the Wizard is a con man maybe this is an indictment of my city, but when you grow up somewhere like Omaha, you take what you can get. Timothy Schaffert took note too and wrapped the Wizard in the clothes of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, or the Omaha’s World Fair. The Swan Gondola isn’t any sort of The Wizard of Oz retelling, but it definitely nods and winks in its direction.
Omaha of this period, and especially the 30 years after, is of interest to me. If I would have been a smarter kid, I would have paid a whole lot more attention on field trips to the history museums. Schaffert has definitely done his research and his Omaha of 1898-99 can best be described in Ferret Skerritt’s own words as “exuding shabby romance.” Indeed, the setting is the best part of The Swan Gondola. Not only is it the Omaha of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, but it’s Ferret’s Omaha. Sort of Victorian seedy. Along with setting, the secondary characters really shine. Two-spirited August Sweetbriar and Pearl the counter girl at Brandeis are almost more solid than Ferret, our narrator, and the nearly ghostly Cecily.
The plot was the weak part for me. I’m going to admit that I’m not a romantic person. Swooning love stories leave me impatient. For me, most of Ferret’s decisions play as selfish, despite his devotion to Cecily and Doxie. Ferret would be the sort of chess player that never thinks more than a move ahead; always reacting to his opponent, occasionally getting bailed out by friends, and mostly just being lucky.
I had crazy high expectations for this book. While it fell a little short, it was still very enjoyable with a magical atmosphere that I don’t find often in historical fiction.
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
Publication date: February 6th 2014
Genre: Historical fiction