As President Grover Cleveland prepares to speak at the opening of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, crowds pressed closer and closer, causing Della Wentworth, a young teacher of the deaf, to be nearly crushed. Panicking, she calls out for help which brings inventer Cullen McNamara to her rescue. With the help of a few other tall fair goers, Cullen lifts Della over the crowd to a place of safety.
So begins Deeanne Gist's romantic historical fiction title It Happened at the Fair. (Read the notes at the end of the book to see what inspired Gist to write this scene.)
A few weeks ago, I was able to watch a live bookchat held by Gist and her publisher. What fun to see her writing office and to follow other readers' comments about the book. I was especially delighted with the event because I won a free copy of the book. One of my favorite parts of the book itself is how Gist incorporated authentic photographs from the fair into each chapter, actually captioning each photo with a line from that chapter. This technique magnified the significance of the setting for this story -- the power that the fair itself would have had on participants and visitors.
The real fair was a complex mix of American showmanship, entertainment, and scientific/technological advancements that lasted six months during 1893, a time when most of the United States faced a looming economic depression. Gist brings all of this into her story -- Della, who teaches the deaf lip reading, a method advocated by Alexander Graham Bell, brings a flavor of how this time period treated those with impairments. Cullen represents those young people who were the "idea men" behind the great technological changes and scientific advancements of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. Of course, the story is primarily a romance, and as such, it is quite a simple story. The fair provides the backdrop that makes the story a worthwhile read.
I read the highly popular Devil in the White City by Erik Larson last year when it was our book club pick. Actually I listened to most of it, finding the oral narration very compelling despite the heavily detail oriented format of the book. That nonfiction title replayed in my mind continually as I read It Happened at the Fair. Did that add or detract from this novel? For me, it actually did both. I noticed and appreciated the historical details Gist wove into the story, especially those that also had been mentioned in Larson's book (such as the Ferris Wheel, international sections, and the island) But on the other hand, I actually wished that Gist had created a story with more characters and more history because I found the romantic story just a little too simple. In the end, I say, "Learn more about the 1893 fair. It is a fascinating part of our history." Fiction or nonfiction? You pick the genre!