The World’s Fair of 1898 was the biggest thing to ever hit the Western town of Omaha. The Fair was held in conjunction with the Indian Congress and included a visit by President William McKinley and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Fair-goers flocked to Omaha from miles around, and with the promise of their purses came thieves, opportunists, prostitutes, and performers setting up shop along the fair’s Midway and the Grand Court.
When a hot air balloon stolen from the Fair crashes on the farmhouse of the Sisters Egan, they take in its injured pilot, Ferret Skerritt. Ferret, a ventriloquist and con, weaves them a tale of his grand love affair with Cecily, a beautiful actress closely guarded by a one-eyed witch. The deeper the sisters are drawn into his fable, the more the magic of the fair is unveiled, complete with spiritualists, masquerades, a Chamber of Horrors and other surprises.
The Swan Gondola is a beautiful portrayal of love and loss set against a glorious backdrop so vivid, it becomes an entire world. The Fair is described in such exquisite detail that you feel that you are walking along the colorful tents and booths of the Midway and sailing down the length of the 2000-ft. lagoon in a gondola on a moonlit night. Schaffert, a Nebraska native, takes some of his inspiration from Baum’s classic novel, The Wizard of Oz, and cheerfully admits to the allusions. Although this is not a retelling or an origin story, I enjoyed discovering the allusions for myself. Schaffert’s novel is a romantic, breathtaking work of literary fiction, and an absolute treat. Highly recommended.
This review first appeared in the February 2014 issue of The Historical Novel Review. I was provided with a copy of the book for the purpose of a review.