Title: The Swan Gondola
Author: Timothy Schaffert
No. of Pages: 464
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Riverhead Books
Release Date: 6 February 2014
Bottom Line: Beautiful writing and imagery but my loathing of all things Wizard of Oz prevents me from loving this one
“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.”
Thoughts: The language within The Swan Gondola is intoxicating. It draws in an unsuspecting reader and wholly captures their imagination and attention. The imagery of the World Fair alone is breathtaking with its unmasking of the false fronts and facades of decadence and prosperity. Nothing is remotely sacred in this novel, as Ferret shares every answer behind various sleight-of-hand tricks, magical tricks, and other flim-flammery so common at fairs and circuses. The story is an absolutely fascinating look at the reality of such events.
Then there are the characters. Cecily and Wakefield may be the most one-dimensional of all the characters; the rest are a true delight. Ferret’s evolution from thievery to legitimacy is enthralling, especially as he hides nothing about himself in the process. Ferret’s friends, particularly August and Rosie, are larger-than-life in their devil-may-care attitudes and absolute zest for life, while the Old Sisters Egan provide a maternal appeal to the story. The honesty with which Ferret approaches his story and that of his friends is refreshing.
The love story is the center of the novel, but one knows that there is a tragedy hidden within its folds from the very first. This tinges one’s appreciation for their story, as a reader anticipates the unveiling of this tragedy. When it happens within the narrative, it is not so much a surprise as a relief that it is finally out in the open and now everyone can move forward with the story. That its unveiling occurs relatively soon in the narrative is something of a surprise, however, and leaves readers wondering just what could possibly happen next. In that aspect, the love story angle is its own diversion from the rest of the story.
I know I am in the minority here, but I hate The Wizard of Oz. I detest the movie, the story, and everything about it. I cannot explain why I am so fiercely against Dorothy and her band of merry fellows; it is an irrational hatred that can be neither understood nor overcome. Therefore, it was with a sinking heart that I started recognizing various elements of Oz within The Swan Gondola. It made me automatically become hyper-critical of a book that does not deserve it. That I recognize the full brilliance of The Swan Gondola in spite of its obvious connections to that horrible story says a lot about Mr. Schaffert’s writing and the story itself. Still, it will forever be the novel that had too many Oz-like aspects for me to really enjoy it.
The Swan Gondola is a beautiful story. Mr. Schaffert’s descriptions are deliciously vital, and his narrative cuts right to the emotional heart of any situation. Unfortunately, I cannot overcome its similarities to The Wizard of Oz to be able to unequivocally like it as much as I should. I detest Oz that much that it taints any story remotely connected to it. However, for those who are not hampered by my irrational bias, The Swan Gondola is a gorgeous, intimate look at the seedier side of life in Omaha at the turn of the century.