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.
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.