Rereading: THE GREAT WHEEL by Robert Lawson

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Images © estate of Robert Lawson.

Robert Lawson first came to prominence as an illustrator of children’s books written by others, such as “Ferdinand” about a bull who loved flowers and didn’t want to fight in the bull ring. Before long, Lawson was writing and illustrating his own books for children, a few picture books for young readers, but mostly longer books for middle grade kids. Some of his books are about animals, like “Rabbit Hill” and “The Tough Winter.” Some profile animals and famous figures from history, like “Ben and Me,” the story of a mouse who gave Benjamin Franklin all his best ideas. There are also a few adventure stories, and some historical ones. “The Great Wheel” is the latter, the story of an Irish lad, Conn Kilroy, who emigrates to America in the early 1890s and becomes involved in the building of the first Ferris Wheel at the Chicago Columbian Exhibition of 1893. Along the way we meet Conn’s large Irish family on both sides of the Atlantic, other emigrants like the charming German girl Trudy that Conn falls for, and the brilliant engineer of the wheel, George Washington Gale Ferris whose vision for a giant wheel to entertain visitors to the Exhibition is declared foolish and impossible to build. Ferris proves his critics wrong, with help from Conn and many other hard-working men.

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Lawson did most of his art in pen and ink linework, as on this back cover montage featuring the main characters of the book. His pen work is terrific, and his characters are full of almost theatrical exaggeration that makes them memorable.

If you’ve seen modern Ferris Wheels, you will be surprised at the size of the original. Each of the cars is the size of a railroad car and holds about three dozen people comfortably. At the top, passengers are about 250 feet off the ground, gaining wonderful views of the fair and the city of Chicago, and much of the lands around. The wheel’s axle alone was 45 feet long and several feet wide. Quite an engineering marvel, and one that was not surpassed until modern times, with wheels like the London Eye.

The story is old-fashioned and charming, an uplifting tale of American can-do optimism and hard-working immigrants, as well as a predictable romance for Conn that is nonetheless heartwarming. A fine book, as are all Lawson’s own tomes, and highly recommended.

One thought on “Rereading: THE GREAT WHEEL by Robert Lawson

  1. Dwight Decker

    I’ve had a copy of the book for about 35 years, and even then had to get it through a used bookstore’s search service. My copy didn’t have a dust jacket, though, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen it. It’s one of my favorite books, with a meticulously researched historical background (though after reading it you could just about build a Ferris wheel of your own with all the detail Lawson gives) and a surprisingly grown-up love story. Still… I wonder what Trudy was doing for about two years from the time she last saw Conn. He fell in love with her but thanks to the simple mistake of not exchanging addresses when they got off the boat, he doesn’t know where she is (except that she’s in Wisconsin) or if he’ll ever see her again. Still he thinks about her and writes letters to her that he can’t mail. Is she pining over him, too? When they do meet again (not exactly a complete coincidence as he happens to be working in the one place where he would see just about everybody who comes to the World’s Fair, though there’s a fair amount of plot machinery in the background anyway to reach that point), she seems willing and eager to take up instantly from where they left on back at the boat, even though quite a lot of time has passed and he’s grown from a boy into a man in the meantime. But it’s sweet and Conn’s conflicting emotions are handled almost too realistically, no doubt puzzling the younger readers as to why after spending two years of narrative time and most of the book mooning over the girl, Conn gets all stiff and stubborn and ready to light out for St. Louis when she finally does show up.

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