fiction favorites…The Great Wheel

The Great Wheel, written and illustrated by Robert Lawson

“For your information,” Uncle Patrick shouted, “the name is Ferris, George Washington Gale Ferris.  Also for your information, he’s the most brilliant young engineer walking the earth today, the way he’d make your Thomas A. Edisons and your Alexander Graham Bells look like petty tinkerers.  Only twelve years out of college and he has as great a knowledge of the ways of iron and steel as the god Vulcan himself…Moreover,” went on Uncle Patrick, pacing the floor, “when his present project is completed it will be the century’s greatest wonder and his name will be on the lips of the world from here to Timbuctoo…I’m in New York on business for him,” said Uncle Patrick. “Chiefly to pick up a few good men — riggers, if I can find them. Real men with the heart to do their work at dizzying heights and eat their lunches sitting on a girder no bigger than your two hands with nothing below them but the empty air and maybe a stray seagull or two.”
“I have the heart for any job any man can do, Uncle Patrick,” [Conn] said quietly…”What’s more I’ve sat at dizzy heights and smoked a pipe with my friend Martin Brennan the rigger on the crosstrees of many a tall-masted ship, and thought no more of it than I’d be sitting on a bench in Central Park feeding the squirrels.”

It’s December, 1892.  The Chicago World’s Fair is set to begin in the summer of ’93, and Mr. Ferris is confidently touting a scheme that no one can believe is possible.  He plans to build a wheel, 250 feet high, its axle set upon massive towers, its rim studded with thirty-six cars, each as big as a streetcar and gleaming with brass, each holding 36 people who will enjoy the ride of their lives as the wheel slowly rotates.

It’s preposterous!  It’s impossible!  But George Washington Gale Ferris says it can be done and finally, finally, he gets the go-ahead.  Among the workmen on this famous wheel is Conn Kilroy, eighteen years old, hair of burnished copper, newly immigrated from Ireland.  What an amazing experience it is to be part of the enormous excavating and cement-pouring, inventory-taking and girder-raising, riveting and hoisting.  In just a few months, the colossal wheel is constructed, taking its place among the fascinating international villages and other attractions of the 1893 Exposition.

But the wheel is not the only thing on Conn’s mind.  Hovering about the corners of his daydreams is a blonde, blue-eyed, German girl named Trudy who immigrated on the same boat, then journeyed to Wisconsin.  When Trudy turns up at the Ferris Wheel with her family, however, Conn is in for a bit of a shock.  Suddenly, all the dreams he’s conjured up seem as impossible as the great wheel.

This is a fascinating, delightful novel by Robert Lawson which won a Newbery Honor back in 1958.  The description of constructing the first and largest Ferris Wheel is incredibly intriguing, and the character of Conn is so pleasant, so endearing, it’s tough not to become invested in the outcome to his story. It’s a fascinating portrayal of life in the immigrant communities of New York and Chicago in the 1890s, and though the terms used to describe various peoples are not correct by current standards (Negroes, for example), the respect Conn has for all his hard-working compatriots shines through.

Lawson writes a fantastic yarn, and this book is a gem.  Of course, his pen-and-ink illustrations are also exquisite, and the ones in this book bring all the beautiful and eccentric characters of the story to life.  We thoroughly enjoyed this as a read-aloud many years ago.  Ages 8 and up.

Here’s the Amazon link:  The Great Wheel