It Happened at the Fair
Gist does a fine job of capturing the splendor of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, partly through the use of photographs and contemporary drawings. Cullen, a farm boy, is exhibiting an automatic sprinkling system he has invented. Della, a teacher of the deaf, has come to present her students, who are being educated in the oral tradition advocated by Alexander Graham Bell. Because Cullen is hard of hearing and working in a noisy environment, he seeks out a lip-reading teacher who turns out to be the claustrophobic woman he rescued from a crowd earlier in the book. Although he has reluctantly set a date to marry a rather pushy woman back in North Carolina, he falls in love with the beautiful and sympathetic Della. Theirs is a chaste 19th-century courtship except for one moment where she makes him remove his shirt to prove that he really is a farmer. They wander through the Fair together, experiencing the exhibits and an incident of panic on Della’s part as they ride the first Ferris Wheel. Della starts to realize the inherent cruelty of oral education with its exclusion of all gesture.
Cullen is suffering from the hard economic times and can’t afford to visit Little Egypt, making him an exception to the observation of Mr. Dooley, the Irish bartender who graced Chicago’s newspapers at the time. “For wan man that goes to the wurruld’s fair to learn more about how boots is made, they’se twenty goes to see the hootchy kootchy and that’s where the wan lands finally.” The book concludes with an informative Author’s Note. Recommended.