As a member of today’s self-involved and indulgent society, I can admit that I favor reading works that speak to my own experience and that are recognizable in setting. On occasion, however, there is nothing like the thrill of being completely transported to a different time and place. Timothy Schaffert does just this.
Set in Omaha during the 1898 World’s Fair, The Swan Gondola (Riverhead) charts the story of young Ferret, a wily young puppeteer who falls madly in love with the coquettish Cecily, an actress in one of the many performances at the exhibition. Cecily's affection is with a wealthy fair patron, however, which leaves Ferret to conjure a plan to win her love.
The Swan Gondola opens mid-story when Ferret, piloting a hot air balloon, crashes into the living room of a humble Nebraska farmhouse, owned by a family called the Egans. It's an exciting start to the book, indicating what is yet to come — its energy matched by the dazzlingly odd personalities of Hester and Emmaline, the farm’s resident owners. At the farmhouse, Ferret writes to Cecily as he is nursed back to health. We take another jump in time, back to the Fair, tracking Ferret’s courtship of Cecily. The occasional letter is interspersed among the pages, which is a beautiful touch by the author.
Schaffert has a talent for setting the scene, painting each moment with the wild and wonderful colors of the World’s Fair and its characters. The details are crisp and precise, making the already vibrant environment all the more bold and brilliant. He makes it easy to share in Ferret’s awe and amazement and to see why our protagonist is so quickly enamored with the spectacle:
The Fair was an optical illusion as illegitimate as my sleight of hand, a summer-long dream we all dreamed together, and I adored it already.
By Book Three of the novel, we have caught up to our protagonist’s present, back on the plains with the sisters Egan. We realize we’ve missed the quirks of Hester and Emmaline, their absence since the novel’s Prologue quite tangible. That magical quality of the Fair is there too, but, where it was loud and forceful when presented at the booths, back on the range it has a more solemn and eerie mysticism. In one of his letters, Ferret describes some of the strange local color:
Whole towns of people, gone mad from the sound of the wind, can hear God’s voice in a turtledove. I’ve heard tell of a cult of farmers along the bone-dry Dismal River who took to worshipping the very insects that ravaged their crops, mimicking the chirp and posture of grasshoppers in nightly rituals, their eyes flickering yellow in the light of the bonfires.
There is a persistent preoccupation with some sort of “other” throughout the book, be it in Ferret’s sensations of being different from those for whom he and the players perform, or the ethereal qualities of the people he meets. As we delve deeper into the troubled romance, Schaffert begins to fold somewhat darker shades of magic into the mix, incorporating the supernatural into the story. In other novels, this might seem a stretch too far but, here, given the whimsical nature of the story and its prose, it seems natural.
The Swan Gondola is rich with fascinating characters (though I would have loved to see more of the Egans). The abundant descriptive passages and wild turns of events are captivating and provide that true novelistic escapism that is so inviting.
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