Like the elderly Emmaline, who experiences the magic of shape-filled dreams and a “new alphabet” that flows “out of the end of her pen,” readers of Timothy Schaffert’s “The Swan Gondola” will experience the magic of a story as delightful and enticingly odd as the 19th-century world’s fair it’s set against.
Responsible for this magic is ventriloquist and con man Ferret Skerritt, whom Schaffert brings to life under the Corinthian columns, hot-air balloons and high-wire acts that in 1898 dazzled close to 3 million people at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha. Schaffert’s fair is no less dazzling. It’s also where Ferret meets the beautiful Cecily, who Schaffert suggests early on might be as deceiving as the fair’s grand buildings. Although the structures look like fine marble, they’re nothing more than whitewashed plaster of Paris molded onto cheap wooden frames.
Against the grit and glamour of the fair’s midway, Ferret and Cecily fall in love. Between Cecily’s shifts working as the guillotined Marie Antoinette in the Chamber of Horrors, the two aerial dance from tightropes and take moonlit rides in swan gondolas. But Cecily has secrets, and more than just those hidden in the heavy carpetbag she holds obsessively tight. Then the wealthy William Wakefield decides he wants Cecily as his own.
To help readers who wish they’d had the chance to walk the Omaha fairgrounds and see what Ferret and Cecily might have, Schaffert has created a “The Swan Gondola” blog on Tumblr to share the event’s “delights, wonders and idiosyncrasies.” Not uncommon for new books, though not always successful, the website (theswangondola.tumblr.com) is as quirky and compelling as the novel, helping turn “The Swan Gondola” into just that much more of a sensory experience.
Each page of this hefty story contains lush prose, intense imagination, imperfectly real characters and vivid storytelling. Allusions to “The Wizard of Oz” can at times distract more they enhance. But just like in Oz, where the improbable is entirely possible, so it is in Schaffert’s Omaha.
Emmaline, the youngest of the two “Old Sisters Egan” who help Ferret tell his story, admits she always reads the end of a book first, because “if she’s flustered by suspense, she worries too much.” Readers with the same habit should restrain themselves from doing so here. “The Swan Gondola” is too fun a ride to spoil.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.