THE SWAN GONDOLA by Timothy Schaffert

Book Quote:

“I then realized that the cathedral is a monument to our grief. It is a shrine for all our dead, constructed of the wreckage of the lives that have fallen down around us.”

Book Review:

Review by Jana L. Perksie  (FEB 14, 2014)

Swan Gondola literally starts off with a bang! Two elderly sisters, Emmaline and Hester, known by most in their small county, as the “Old Sisters Egan,” are sitting in their Nebraska farm kitchen drinking coffee. The day has been a peaceful one. Suddenly the house begins to shiver and shake and they are enveloped in noise, a loud BANG!! Books fall from their shelves, china dishes and cups fall to the floor, breaking, chimney bricks drop into the hearth, their caged canaries stop singing and the two sisters are left stunned, shocked. Hester, the tough one, lifts her rifle and opens the door, not knowing what to expect. She and petite, romantic Emmaline, are immediately enveloped in silk. Silk is everywhere. They have witnessed so much in their lives on the farm that nothing really surprises them anymore. The silk comes from a ruined hot air balloon which has apparently crashed into their roof. “Escaped the circus?” Hester wonders. The two immediately search for the pilot, who could be hurt or, even worse, dead. They do find the man alive, flat on his back on the ground, his left leg in a terrible bend. Emmaline’s and Hester’s discovery of the balloon’s pilot will change their lives forever as he relates his strange, mesmerizing and sorry tale.

Obviously in pain, the man snaps his fingers weakly and a card slips from his sleeve which reads, “B. ‘Ferret’ Skerritt, Omaha, Nebraska.” And on the back “This slight of hand you just witnessed is only a hint of my wizardry.” From his inside pocket a postcard falls. Written by Ferret, it gives the reader an example of his unrequited love for his beloved, Mrs. Cecily Wakefield of Omaha. Their’s is a star-crossed love…dramatic, romantic and heartbreaking.

Thus we meet our protagonist whose name is really Bartholomew Skerritt. He is an orphan, (now 25 years-old), left at the door of a Catholic orphanage when he was an infant. Sister Patience told him, “All orphans are born of whores.” There was a note that his mother had tucked into his little suit. “She had addressed the baby as Mr. Bartholomew Skerritt and written: ‘Your last name is your daddy’s last name, (I’m damned sure of it, don’t let anybody tell you different), and your first name was the longest first name I’ve ever seen written down. I can’t give you nothing much but I can give you a name with lots of letters in it. Sincerely, the mother you never knew.’” Reflecting back on his childhood, Ferret says: “Childhood is too awful a thing to make happen to somebody.”

When he was a boy he met librarian, Mr. Crowe. Crowe’s real vocation is that of a ventriloquist. He took a shine to Bartholomew and taught him about the world of books, and more importantly to the boy’s future, how to excel as a ventriloquist.

Ferret has become a petty thief and con-man who currently works as a ventriloquist and a magician at a vaudeville theater, (before the Fair). He usually follows the carny circuit with his unique dummy, Oscar. It is at the Empress Opera House where he meets and immediately falls in love with the mysterious Cecily, an actress with an unknown history. “I heard her name before I saw her, backstage.”

The narrative takes place in the Sisters Egan’s farmhouse while he is recovering. The ever practical Hester, who acts as the community’s amateur veterinarian, has patched him up and put his leg in a cast. It is at the farmhouse where he relates his tale. The author effectively uses letters from Ferret to Cecily, and from Cecily to him, to further the storyline, which weaves back and forth in time from Autumn 1898 to the winter of 1899.

This story-within-a-story begins in the spring of 1898, at the opening of the Omaha World’s Fair. Omaha, Nebraska, is still a noisy, dirty frontier city whose nickname was the “Gateway to the West.” The author writes, “The Omaha World’s Fair, as depicted in  The Swan Gondola,  is a fictional approximation of the “Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition.” The author’s version of the Omaha World’s Fair was held from June 1 to November 1 of 1898. Its goal was to showcase the development of the entire West, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. Over 2.6 million people came to Omaha to view the 4,062 exhibits during the four months of the Fair. President William McKinley was among the dignitaries who attended. McKinley, in a cameo role here, is immersed in the Spanish-American War, yet still makes time to attend.

Already known as the “New White City,” this fair tries to one-up the fair at Chicago, originally called the “White CIty.” Chicago’s fair took place in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492. The Omaha Fair is much different from Chicago’s, as there is very little “white” about it. Behind the scenes at the Fair, another story takes place, a sleazier story: that of the “rousties,” those workers who put the fair together and take it down; ZigZag the clown, Rosie the anarchist and friend to Ferriet as well as August, another close friend of our protagonist. August is an eccentric Native American homosexual who has a crush on Ferrit. Also among the fair’s “players” are the ragtime player, the nervous lion tamer, the waltzing dwarves, can-can dancers, hootchy kootchy showgirls, etc. They are all looking to make a buck from the “gillies,” (civilians), legally or illegally. This “carny-like” background really enriches The Swan Gondola.  The author has said in an interview, “As for the genre of carnival fiction – perhaps its appeal rests in the hodgepodge of it all. Our concept of an American carnival brings to mind childhood delights, but also an element of the seedy, the deceptive, and the decidedly adult. A carnival is a bit of a fever dream – it’s all cotton candy and sex, on a dirt lot.”

“The Swan Gondola” is situated on a lagoon on the midway. It is at the gondola that Ferret and Cecily meet and conduct their romance, at least initially. Ferret is obsessed with Cecily from the first moment he sees her. His obsession drives the narrative.

The Swan Gondola is a novel that grabbed me from page one until the very end. The characters are well fleshed-out and complex and the writing is tight – no unnecessary filler. Readers will be ensnared by the offbeat personalities and carried along by the unexpected plot developments. Timothy Schaffert clearly did a tremendous amount of research for this book. It seems that the author is a huge fan of L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz,” as demonstrated in this tale. A riveting piece of historical fiction from page one to the very end. I highly recommend this novel. It is original and entertaining and gives one a good look at the goings-on at a fair, a carny show or a circus.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 26 readers
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Hardcover (February 6, 2014)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perksie
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Timothy Schaffert
EXTRAS: Swan Gondola Nostalgia
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February 14, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, US Frontier West, Wild West

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