In the absence of a time machine, Timothy Schaffert's newest novel, "The Swan Gondola", is the next-best way to visit Omaha's World's Fair of 1898. The setting and atmosphere are front and center in this novel, making possible all of the actions undertaken by the characters.
While the plot often moves as slowly as a bumblebee meandering from wildflower to wildflower across the Nebraska prairies, it is easy to become immersed in Schaffert's descriptions of fin-de-siècle Nebraska, from the glittery and gritty World's Fair in Omaha to the isolated farmstead inhabited by the Old Sisters Egan in the Nebraska plains. For those who like to travel by words rather than planes, this novel is worth the reading for its richly described settings alone.
"The Swan Gondola" is not for those seeking a plot-driven story full of action and hi-jinks as might befit a World's Fair. Although there are several high-action scenes--thievery, fires, runaway horses, and balloon crashes, to name a few--they take the role of a marzipan garnish to the triple-layer cake that is this novel's setting.
The plot is made more interesting in that it does not flow chronologically but rather switches between Ferret's present--the months after the Fair--and the time of the story's main action--the months during the Fair so that the reader often has glimpses of what is yet to happen, lending a slight sense of impending doom to the otherwise fairly languid plot.
It would do a disservice to this novel's characters not to mention them here. Although the plot rather outshines them, this novel's characters are eccentric enough to live on in the reader's mind after the novel is done. The novel follows Ferret Skerritt as he falls madly in love with a rather mysterious actress named Cecily.
Ferret grew up an orphan and a thief in Omaha, along the way learning the art of ventriloquism. Now a young man, he made his living by performing his ventriloquist's act on the stage of a second-class theater in Omaha. Ferret's placid existence is disrupted when he meets Cecily when she fills in for an actress in his show for one night only. He is determined to find her again at the World's Fair, and the the novel mainly follows the course of his ever-changing interactions with her.
Additionally, the Fair is populated with the sort of carnies one might imagine into it: a mysterious old woman, witch-like and fiercely protective of Cecily and her out-of-wedlock infant; the wealthy Billy Wakefield with all of the money Ferret can imagine, an eerie silver prosthetic hand, and a tragic history; and Ferret's friends Rosie (a Polish anarchist who sells photographs of scantily clad ladies at the Fair) and August (the son of a successful Omaha bookseller and printer, he is also a gay Native American, who shams medicines and fortune readings for white fair customers in a teepee at the Fair). While the characters are not as well-developed as the plot, they are interesting to read about.
There is also a sort of strange "Wizard of Oz" undertone to this novel, which becomes most evident at its end. Without giving too much away, there's a balloon, an Emerald Cathedral (not a city), and a Dorothy, although they're in Nebraska rather than Kansas. "The Swan Gondola" is certainly not an allegory or spoof on The "Wizard of Oz", but there are certainly elements of influence tucked in almost where they can't be noticed. It's unclear what the purpose of these fleeting references might be, other than as a nod to a classic American tale.
Other setting-centric books: "Swamplandia" by Karen Russell (not only is the lush setting of Florida central to this novel, but also there are plenty of carnie-like characters), My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (the flora and fauna of Corfu take center stage here), and "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame (the river and surrounding countryside are really the beating heart of this classic story)