The Swan Gondola: A Novel

by Timothy Schaffert

(Riverhead, $27.95, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

Timothy Schaffert is a thoroughly Nebraska guy. Schaffert spent his boyhood on a farm there and now lives in Omaha. His four previous novels include “The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God” and “Devils in the Sugar Shop,” garnered such honors as Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selections, Indie Next Picks, and New York Times Editor’s Choices. Besides writing, he teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

What is this book about?

First of all, were you as surprised as I was to learn that Omaha hosted the 1898 World’s Fair? It certainly did, and that is the milieu of this inventive novel. Set in the elaborate Gilded Age era, with all its Victorian flourishes, the book’s protagonist is the wonderfully named Ferret Skerrit, a ventriloquist and a con man. Clever though he is, he nevertheless falls for the charms of Cecily, who totes around a mysterious carpetbag and plays the role of Marie Antoinette in a traveling show at the fair, a role that requires her to lose her head….not romantically, but hourly, via a fake guillotine. She’s not interested in ferreting out (sorry!) Skerrit’s good side, until nightly star-lit rides in a swan gondola takes place. But their stars are crossed, and many other occurrences, such as a cameo appearance by President William McKinley, an ill-fated hot-air balloon crash and an even-more ill-fated marriage vie for the reader’s attention. Wizard of Oz imagery and lush description, a la “The Night Circus,” highlight the story.

Why you’ll like it:

Romances set in earlier times nearly always have charm, and this book is no exception. Ferret and Cecily have miles to go, and the reader has the fun of watching this improbable and complex love story play out. The gondola rides, hot air balloon and other Victorian frippery add period atmosphere and some fun to this lighter-than-air story.

What others are saying:

“Timothy Schaffert has chosen the 1898 World’s Fair in Omaha as the backdrop for his new novel, The Swan Gondola, a highly atmospheric entertainment, full of plot twists, historical flavor and paranormal romance. . . . Beneath the intrigue, mystery and historical window dressings of The Swan Gondola beats the heart of a complicated love story. . . . As a prose stylist, Schaffert leans toward the extravagant without crossing the line into purple. The jaunty Victorian temperament of the prose rings true to the era, as do its thoroughness and attention to detail. . . . This tendency toward expansive description . . . serves to create a palpable atmosphere, imbuing the novel with the glossy cinematic quality of a big-budget Hollywood period piece. . . . Readers who enjoyed Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus are likely to be captivated by The Swan Gondola,” says The Washington Post.

“A ventriloquist in a hot air balloon lifts off from Omaha, Neb., crashes in a strange land, and presides over an emerald cathedral. Yes, it’s The Wizard of Oz. But it’s also the loose construct of Timothy Schaffert’s new novel, The Swan Gondola, which pays tribute to the L. Frank Baum’s classic, yet veers off on its own path of magic and deception. It’s an entertaining and thoroughly researched book, particularly suitable for Americana buffs who want a taste of life in a western frontier town struggling to become a modern city at the turn of the century,” says the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Booklist’s starred review says:  “Offering an expertly conjured atmosphere complete with soothsayers, cure-all tonics, technological gadgetry, and daring high-wire acts, Schaffert’s whimsical epic of illusion and reality at the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair promises and delivers grand entertainment. . . .  Audiences will be lured in by the offbeat personalities and carried along by the unexpected plot developments, but the real showstopper is the exuberant Gilded Age setting, imagined in elaborate detail. With so many wondrous attractions, this finely spun world feels almost dreamlike, yet Schaffert also takes a sharp look at what’s most important in life.”

Says Publishers Weekly: The latest from Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope) is a love story set during the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. “Ferret” Skerritt is a ventriloquist who becomes smitten with Cecily, a beauty who comes to town with the fair’s Chamber of Horrors (she plays Marie Antoinette and is beheaded hourly). Deciphering Cecily’s many secrets, including the contents of her mysteriously heavy carpet bag, is just the first challenge Ferret faces in courting her: soon William Wakefield, the fair’s wealthy patron, sees Cecily and decides he wants her for himself. Schaffert’s picture of the fair is enchanting, from the buildings that shimmer with “shattered glass that had been dusted over the whitewash” to the midway attractions, including a theatre where Cecily and Ferret briefly hang from wires and dance in midair. As the two lovers become embroiled with Wakefield, however, the novel loses some of its magic. Additionally, the frequent Wizard of Oz allusions build to nothing. But there are many romantic and historical delights here, and, despite its imperfections, it’s easy to imagine this charming novel attaining Water for Elephants–like popularity with readers.”

Library Journal says: “Schaffert’s fifth novel (after The Coffins of Little Hope) opens with a bang. In autumn 1898, the elderly Egan sisters are enjoying an evening cup of tea in their Nebraska prairie farmhouse when they are jolted out of their chairs by a hot-air balloon crashing on their roof. They rescue Ferret Skerritt from the basket and mend his broken leg. While he recuperates, he tells a fantastic story of his life at the Omaha World’s Fair (he is a ventriloquist) and why he stole the balloon. Ferret describes a world of colorful eccentrics, astonishing scientific wonders, and even a visit from President McKinley as he relates his pursuit of the beautiful but elusive Cecily. Cecily is an actress in the Chamber of Horrors, where she gets beheaded four times a day, and he courts her with romantic midnight rides in the swan gondola on the boat lagoon, offering her little except his devotion. Before Ferret can propose, Cecily marries a wealthy businessman to give her daughter Doxie a better life. Undeterred, Ferret plans Cecily’s rescue, dreaming of a dignified, respectable life with his beloved. VERDICT With allusions to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, Schaffert has magically transformed a stretch of field near Omaha into a white, shimmering vision of rotundas, columns, and pillars. His magical tale is steeped in late 19th-century history. The stately pace might be too slow for some readers, but fans of historical fiction will not be disappointed.”

When is it available?

You don’t have to go to Nebraska to pick up this book. It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library now.

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