Gambling everything, including the family farm, Cullen McNamara travels to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with his most recent invention. But the noise in the Fair’s Machinery Palace makes it impossible to communicate with potential buyers. In an act of desperation, he hires Della Wentworth, a teacher of the deaf, to tutor him in the art of lip-reading.
The young teacher is reluctant to participate, and Cullen has trouble keeping his mind on his lessons while intently watching her lips. Like the newly invented Ferris Wheel, he is caught in a whirl between his girl back home, his dreams as an inventor, and his unexpected attraction to his new tutor. Can he keep his feet on the ground, or will he be carried away?
There is something about World’s Fairs that fascinate me, particularly those that took place during the industrialization era of 1851 to 1938. I was delighted, therefore, to receive this latest title by Deeanne Gist. The majority of It Happened at the Fair takes place at the fairgrounds, and Gist does a fantastic job of recreating the atmosphere. The Chicago World’s Fair was also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, with the emphasis on the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. It covered over 600 acres, and the writing conveys a sense of how large the expo was. There was no way to visit everything in one day or even two.
The characters are a delight. Cullen has an interesting relationship with a girl back home, a girl who is perhaps far more forward than she should be. Meanwhile, Della is wary of any man due to advice that her father had given her. (Perhaps she was wise to listen to her father; there was a serial killer in Chicago who did prey on female visitors to the fair.) Both lie to each other in order to protect themselves, but it is a lie by omission that threatens their relationship.
A continuing theme of the novel is the teaching of deaf children. Della works for a school that teaches children to lip read. In 1880 hearing educators voted to outlaw any form of sign language and, instead, concentrate on oral education and lip reading. Much of it was to do with the culture of the time, when a deaf person was often considered an imbecile who should be locked up. The idea was that deaf children would integrate better into society if their disability was not so obvious. When Cullen expresses an interest in learning sign language, Della is quick in her attempts to discourage him.
Readers should be warned that there is a traumatic event described in detail in the book. On the afternoon of July 10, smoke was spotted coming from the Cold Storage building. Firefighters responded quickly but the fire roared out of control, trapping some of the brave men on the roof in full view of several thousand powerless onlookers. Gist describes the horror of what happened that day with class; this was a major event during the Columbian Exhibition and to ignore it would have been a major disservice to the men who died. More sensitive readers, however, may want to skip half of chapter 20 and the entirety of chapter 21.
Overall, this is a great read. It’s evident that Deeanne Gist did thorough research on the Chicago World’s Fair, and her author’s note at the end is detailed. If you enjoy reading romances set during historic events, I am certain you will love It Happened at the Fair.
One final note: although this novel is available in electronic form, I strongly suggest you get the printed version of it. The majority of chapters begin with either an illustration or a photograph of a building at the fair. I tried reading on a basic Kindle and found that the formatting around the pictures didn’t work properly.
Publisher: Howard Books
Publication Date: 30 April 2013
Page Count: 432
Thank you to Howard for my free copy of It Happened at the Fair, which I received in exchange for an honest review.