Published February 2014 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my copy purchased the the Omaha Lit Fest and signed by the author
Publisher’s Summary: On the eve of the World’s Fair, Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist by trade, con man by birth, is unsure how the fair’s events 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 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, transforms everything when the fair’s magic begins to take its effect.
My Thoughts: I have long been a fan of Schaffert’s and grabbed this one up shortly after it was released when I was at an event where I could have it signed. And then it sat. Because I’m Facebook friends with him and I was sort of holding off on it until I knew he had another book headed to the publisher. Seems he’s still working away but I couldn’t wait any longer; it felt like this was just the book I needed.
I was right. The Swan Gondola absolutely enchanted me. Truly, I was under Schaffert’s spell from the beginning, when I was introduced to the Old Sisters Egan, two sisters who live on the plains of Nebraska and whose quiet existence is suddenly upended when a hot air balloon crashes into their house and Ferret Skerritt is deposited, broken bones and broken spirit, in their field. From there Schaffert weaves his story back and forth in time, including letters from Ferret and Cecily.
Of course, I’m particularly partial to the story because it’s set in Nebraska, most of it in Omaha. I was also eager to learn more about the World’s Fair that was celebrated in Omaha in 1898 and 1899. Nothing, no landmark of any kind remains of it today which makes it all the more fascinating and mythical – it hardly seems possible that it happened in what was then a dirty, rough city on the edge of the wilderness. I really only knew about the New White City portion of the fair – the beautiful, magnificent, educational buildings that appeared out of nowhere. What a treasure it would be if any of them had survived! But I had no idea that there had been an equally large midway and it’s really there that Schaffert sets his love story.
It's a love story that's melodramatic in all of the right ways and it feels every bit as Victorian as the time period it is set in. A murderous automaton, backgrounds that make both Ferrett and Cecily damaged goods, an incredibly wealthy man who will pull out all of the tricks to get what he wants, and a cast of characters that the Lincoln Journal-Star reviewer called lovable "Schaffert-esque." I know exactly what he meant - Schaffert always peoples his books with characters who are quirky, often damaged, and have emotional depth.
The Swan Gondola is certainly influenced by L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz but it is absolutely not a retelling, more of an homage. Schaffert includes a character named Dorothy, a balloonist who crash lands into another land, an Emerald Cathedral, and even a cyclone. To an extent, I suppose you could even say that the ending resembles Baum's book in a way. But it's also an ending that settles quietly, even as Schaffert throws one last surprise readers' way.
There is an element of spiritualism and even, perhaps, a bit of magic. You all know how I feel about magic in my books and I began to be concerned that a book I was enjoying so much was going to veer too far down that path. But Schaffert plays that perfectly for my tastes and I came away without feeling like he had copped out of trying to resolve his story in a mystical way.
I really don't know why this hasn't been optioned for a movie. In its scope, its characters, its story lines, I would love to see this on the big screen.