Novel tickles ‘Oz’ to get chuckles for a 19th-century, Midwest carnival story

Updated: 2014-02-09T04:05:14Z


Special to The Star

On a sunny autumn day, two elderly sisters are startled when a hot air balloon crashes into their farmhouse. Inside, they find a ventriloquist who took off from a fair in Omaha. If that sounds slightly familiar, it should.

In the 114 years since “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was published, the story has become such an integral part of the American literary tradition that writers and filmmakers today reference Dorothy, tornadoes and “the man behind the curtain” the way earlier writers incorporated elements of Greek myths into stories.

“The Swan Gondola,” the fifth novel by Nebraska author Timothy Schaffert, uses allusions like the one above to add texture to its own tale of magic and intrigue in the turn-of-the-20th-century Great Plains.

The fictional story takes place at the Omaha World’s Fair in 1898 (based on the real-life Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition), where one Bartholomew “Ferret” Skerritt falls in love with a fairground actress named Cecily.

Schaffert uses this backdrop to combine the whimsy of a carnival story with the quirky history of the Belle Epoque, where technological advances like automobiles and incubators for premature babies bump up against such vestiges of the Old West as blizzards on desolate homesteads and Native Americans (who, at this point, exist mainly as exotic entertainment for the white fairgoers).

Ferret, a child pickpocket who worked his way up to the slightly more respectable professions of ventriloquist and pen-for-hire, lives in the attic above a vaudeville theater and dresses in the costumes left behind by the actors. With his warm, clear-eyed yet romantic voice, Ferret is our guide to this summer fair in an up-and-coming city peopled with characters each as specifically lively and eccentric as himself.

There’s Roscisław (“Rosie”), anarchist and seller of pinup postcards; Pearl, a designer of shop windows and a women’s “dress reformist;” and Ferret’s best friend August, the son of an Omaha Indian bookseller, a dapper dresser, Oscar Wilde admirer and purveyor of pseudo-medicinal herbal remedies.

Ferret woos Cecily in the swan-shaped gondola that glides in the fair’s man-made lagoon. But his ventriloquism act also attracts the attention of the fair’s patron, a wealthy and mysterious tinkerer named Billy Wakefield, who soon becomes enamored of Cecily and threatens the couple’s idyllic summer of love.

In its second half, the novel hews more closely to the conventional star-crossed romance plot, which gives it a somewhat diminished luster compared with the first half, with its hall of mirrors and flying waltz practice and jingoistic parties celebrating America’s participation in the Spanish-American War.

Cecily, the genial actress that first catches Ferret’s eye, is more interesting than the doomed love interest she becomes.

But for the most part, Schaffert is sly about undercutting his 19th-century melodrama tropes (the upwardly mobile poor orphan, the mysterious illness, the sinister rich man). Nobody acts for purely evil or purely unselfish reasons, and relationships fall apart as much for mundane reasons as for highly fraught misunderstandings. A contact beyond the grave may be truly supernatural, or it may simply be wishful thinking.

It’s a fun game to spot the “Oz” references both obvious — a little girl named Dorothy — and subtle — a circus show put on by dwarfs, an organ grinder’s monkeys wearing paper wings. In fact, “The Swan Gondola” feels like it takes place in “Oz’s” parallel universe. L. Frank Baum’s tale of good and bad witches and scarecrows come to life could be a fantastical reimagining of the more grounded story of Ferret, Cecily and their motley crew of actors, carnival folk and con men.

Schaffert also manages to bring 1898 to life in vivid detail without getting bogged down in research. Instead, the spirit of the times manifests itself in souvenirs exhorting fairgoers to “Remember the Maine!” and in an anarchist plot to kill President McKinley that doesn’t quite come together like his real assassination would three years later.

“The Swan Gondola” is loud and colorful and larger-than-life. But throughout, Schaffert proves he knows how to find the quiet heart of a scene, of which none are better than the tender moments between August and Ferret, full of the love of friendship and the pain of one-sided romance.

Discussions of Midwestern literature often lament its historical lack of impact on the national literary imagination. But perhaps those discussions overlook a children’s story about a yellow brick road and an emerald city. As an imaginative look at the American heartland between the pioneer times and the Great Depression, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” seems the perfect tradition for Schaffert to tether his balloon to.

More information

Author visit: Timothy Schaffert, the Nebraska author of “The Swan Gondola,” will be in Kansas City on Tuesday for a signing and discussion with another author, Cathy Marie Buchanan (“The Painted Girls”). The event is at Unity Temple on the Plaza. For details, go to

Exhibit in Omaha: In conjunction with the release of Schaffert’s book, the Omaha Public Library is holding an exhibit of photographs and memorabilia from the 1898 world’s fair at its main library through Feb. 28. For details, go to

Christine Pivovar is a freelance writer in Kansas City.

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