A ventriloquist and actress pursue a rough-and-tumble romance in the shadow of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair.
Readers meet Ferret Skerritt, narrator of the second novel by Schaffert (Creative Writing and Literature/Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln; The Coffins of Little Hope, 2011), as he accidentally crashes a hot air balloon into the home of two aging sisters. Ferret was heartbroken when he took flight and wounded after landing, but Schaffert plays up the absurdity of the incident in this entertaining if light novel. Flash back a few months earlier: We meet Ferrett as a one-time petty thief who’s getting by as a ventriloquist at a vaudeville theater, where he meets (and promptly falls for) Cecily, an actress with an obscure history. Omaha’s World’s Fair is depicted as a downscale cousin to Chicago’s lavish 1893 exposition, but there’s still money to be made, and the couple perform on the midway daily (she’s Marie Antoinette, her head chopped off over and over daily) before meeting in the swan-shaped gondola of the title. Ferrett wants to get serious with Cecily, who has an infant daughter (the father is absent), but enter William Wakefield, a wealthy fair organizer who wants Cecily for himself. Schaffert captures the grandeur and strangeness of the fair pavilions, as well as the political ferment of the time. (President William McKinley, in the thick of the Spanish-American War, has a cameo.) Despite the novel’s widescreen setting, though, the central love story is thin and upended so quickly the reader is challenged to feel invested in Ferrett’s and Cecily’s fates. And though Schaffert uses fakery as an intriguing theme (ventriloquists, automatons, Spanish-American War propaganda), the closing chapters’ would-be ghost story has too much stage makeup to achieve its intended Oz-like effect.
A rambunctious and well-researched but ungainly historical romance.