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Fiction ‘Swan Gondola’ brings alive magic of 1898 Omaha

  • Published Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, at 11:12 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, at 11:15 p.m.

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“The Swan Gondola” by Timothy Schaffert (Riverhead Books, 464 pages, $27.95)

I am a hopeless romantic. And if you’re like me, Timothy Schaffert’s “The Swan Gondola” may just be the perfect book for you.

The story, set largely at and around the events of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, is a delight. Schaffert’s plot revolves around Ferret Skerritt, a ventriloquist on the midway of the fair. He falls in love with a traveling actress named Cecily, and the two spend their summer together against the fair’s gleaming backdrop. When William Wakefield, the well-to-do Omaha businessman leading the fair, also takes an interest in Cecily, Ferret is left trying to pick up the pieces of his summer.

Ferret’s story is a believable, touching and occasionally maddening tale of love, loss, and life afterward.

Just like the fair, Ferret’s life is heartbreakingly ephemeral. Don’t be surprised if you shed a tear or two at his misfortune.

It’s an intriguing plotline befitting Schaffert’s fancifully imagined setting.

Schaffert conjures up a vaudeville world of magic, love and wonder – a world that is hard to resist. .

His cast of characters is refreshing, from the carnies Ferret hangs out with, to Wakefield, who plays a Gatsby-esque character – the ultra-rich man who has come into his wealth somewhat dubiously. He’s that odd antagonist that you find yourself hating in one chapter and feeling pity for in the next.

Schaffert’s characters come across as so vivid that I found myself wishing, almost to the point of believing, that Ferret Skerritt were real, if for no other reason than to prove that magic was at one time genuine.

I would hesitate to call this steampunk literature, but it certainly has a few trappings of the genre – wire-strung aerial waltzes, tornado-generating machines, and women who wear red-tinted glasses to “calm their ovaries,” according to their iridologists’ prescription.

At 464 pages, the book seems a tad overlong, especially when reading the earlier sections, which have pacing issues. I was not hooked on the story until about 125 pages in. However, the plot does pick up significantly about halfway through.

It’s a rewarding book to finish, though its denouement came on too quickly for my tastes. I found myself flipping through the last few pages of the novel, trying to ferret out even a paragraph more of conclusion before the author’s notes. It leaves quite a bit to the reader’s imagination, as some major plot points seem only halfway resolved.

Overall, I highly recommend this novel. But make sure to dedicate enough time to reading the first hundred pages or so in one sitting. After that, you’ll be hooked, and you will not come away disappointed.

Matt Riedl is editor-in-chief of The Vantage newspaper at Newman University.

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