"The Swan Gondola" by Timothy Schaffert
The Swan Gondola is the story of love lost and love found. And lost again, and misplaced, and stolen, and tricked into leaving. Mostly it’s about love having one heck of a time at the Omaha World’s Fair of 1898.
The hero of the novel, B. “Ferret” Skerritt, is a man of some skills: an orphan who became a con man, a ventriloquist, a thief and a love-letter writer for hire, who made his way through the underbelly of Omaha of the late 19th century. “I didn’t know it then, but I was stunted, forever the orphaned child,” Skerritt explains in the opening narrative. “That life I’d longed for – of being a man of worth and substance after shaking off my awful boyhood – still seemed a lifetime away.” Then one night, backstage of the Empress Opera House (just down the street from the more respectable Orpheum) he meets the love of his life, Cecily, an actress, a stand-in, really, and in just a glance from her, Skerritt’s life is forever changed. “I suddenly felt like I was somebody worth seeing.”
Set against the exotic and odd background of Omaha’s version of The White City, and filled with a cast of lovable Schaffert-esque characters – even his villain, a rival for Cecily’s affections, is sympathetic – the novel cannot be reduced to the single label of “romance.” Schaffert takes his time in the telling, creating a world as ephemeral as any World’s Fair or temporary installation can be, yet grounding it the timeless issues of love and war, community and independence, dreams and reality. In the process he leaves the reader with images and moments so beautiful and realistic they seem to have been witnessed first hand, or at least you wish it were so. “The Grand Court could fool you into thinking it was all marble and stone, the midway was marzipan melting in a candy shop window.”
The novel is influenced by the Frank Baum classic The Wizard of Oz. Not as a rewrite of it, but as a re-imagining of the possibilities open to Baum’s ill-fated balloonist, and from that first lift off and slight, fanciful connection, The Swan Gondola sails into entirely new territory. Told mostly through Skerritt’s letters and first person narrative, the story moves back and forth in time, covering the events of the romance that begins in late spring of 1898. The story ends in the summer of 1899 – as for the fate of the romance, I’ll leave you to find out when you read the book.
Schaffert’s novels are bright gems on the literary landscape of Nebraska. From his poignant debut The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, through the comically touching Singing and Dancing Daughters of God and Devils in the Sugar Shop, and on to the absolute stunner of delight The Coffins of Little Hope, Schaffert has shown himself to a master at creating delightful, quirky characters caught in situations that can make you want to laugh and cry, and then want to start the books all over again.
The narrator of his last novel, an octogenarian obit writer for the newspaper of the fictional small town of Little Hope Nebraska, is one of my all-time favorite literary characters and that the novel set a high bar for Schaffert’s subsequent work. The Swan Gondola, doesn’t leap over that bar – it floats as easily and gracefully as a hot air balloon escaping the fair. But unlike the ill-fated balloon in the story, this novel keeps its loft from start to finish.
Shaffert’s work has been a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection, an Indie Next pick, and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. He teaches in the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is the director/founder of the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, and is a contributing editor to Fairy Tale Review. The Swan Gondola is included in “Oprah’s Winter Reading” list.