I thought that this story would be from the perspective of an attendee of the 1893 Chicago World Fair. Instead, it tells the story of one of the men who helped build the Great Ferris Wheel!
Cornelius Terence Kilroy has never dreamed of going west – but the west is calling his name! His Uncle Michael has offered for Conn to cross the Atlantic Sea, leaving his home in Ireland to live and work in New York City.
Conn agrees and the next day begins his journey to New York City. He enjoys his life there – living with a doting aunt and friendly cousins is pleasant and makes him feel at home. But one day, Conn’s Uncle Patrick comes to stay with his brother. A passionate man with flaming red hair, he loudly and proudly describes the work of his friend, George Washington Gale Ferris – the marvelous Ferris Wheel that is being built for the 1893 Chicago World Fair. Conn is strangely stirred by Uncle Patrick’s description. He decides to accompany him to Illinois.
The work is hard, but fulfilling. Each day substantial progress is made with the building. But will the Great Wheel be built in time for the fair? And will it actually work?
The most troubling aspect of the story has concerns a prophecy which Conn’s Aunt Honora made. Here is the passage.
When Conn was twelve years old, Aunt Honora read his fortune from the leaves in his cup. She was very old, even then, and the village considered her a Wise Woman.
“Neil, lad,” she said, peering into the cup, “mind well what I’m telling you now. Your fortune lies to the west. Keep your face to the sunset and follow the evening star, and one day you’ll ride the greatest wheel in all the world.” [pgs. 1-2]
This prophecy is referenced around a dozen times in the one hundred eighty page book (which isn’t too bad) and was used mainly as a plot device to make the story seem more Irish. Aunt Honora’s methods of fortune telling – reading a person’s fortune in tea leaves! – is not detailed. The troubling thing is that the prophecy came true. A broken clock is right twice a day?
Conn develops an affection for a young Dutch girl named Trudy while at sea. Because she does not know what her address will be when she gets to America, he is unable to obtain it. During the course of the book he thinks about her and sometimes writes letters to her which he cannot mail. At the end of the story, *SPOILER* she attends the fair where the meet up and agree to marry one another.
Far from being a problem, I thought Conn’s relationship with Trudy to be a sweet addition to the story – none of their interaction or conversations are inappropriate. I thought that (apart from not knowing each other very well) they had a solid foundation for their relationship; they were both level-headed and spoke practically about what their future would be like.
When Uncle Patrick sends some money to Conn’s mother, he specifies its use, adding that whatever money is left can be used to buy masses for her dead husband. Other than one reference to the Saints, this is all the religion in this story.
Uncle Patrick declares that Mr. Ferris “has as great a knowledge of the ways of iron and steel as the god Vulcan himself.” [pg. 33]
Conn’s cousin, Agnes, writes a letter to him, saying,
“Now I will tell you a great secret but you must not breathe a word of it to anyone. Mamma and Stella and I are going to begin to work on Papa to take us to the Fair this summer, instead of that tiresome old Brighton Beach. Won’t that be exciting? Lots of our friends are planning to go but Papa says it is a waste of money. He says that there will not be much to see that is worth while and he wouldn’t ride on the Ferris Wheel if you paid him. He says that he can’t see why this great Fair us being made to honor Columbus who was only an Italian sailor anyway. If it was for Robert Emmet or George Washington there’d be some sense to it he says.
But we will bring him around, never fear, and by the time our trunks are packed he will think it was all his idea.” [pg. 78-79]
Conn later imagines what it will be like for Agnes to be “working” on her father. He chuckles at the idea but considers her to be a bossy girl.
‘By gorry’ is used twice; ‘wish to God’ and ‘holy saints’ are each used once.
Conclusion. Definitely worthwhile, The Great Wheel approaches the story of the Chicago World Fair from a perspective rarely mentioned – the worker’s.
Review © 2012 Laura Verret