Attending the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago is a life-changing experience for shy widow Junaluska Lewis and her 14-year-old son, Henry, in this pleasing historical novel.
When Juna’s father-in-law tells her he’s arranged a three-week trip to the world’s fair for her and Henry, she agrees, despite her concerns about her the health of Henry, who is recovering from a recent illness. They will be in the care of Archibald Peterson, an agent for the family’s successful vinegar business, as well as spending time with Juna’s outgoing journalist sister, Zenobia.
Henry soon finds himself drawn to a Japanese girl who works at the fair, while Juna makes new acquaintances who encourage her to take elocution classes and advocate for her own business ideas. Other forces are at play, however, including a duplicitous friend who wants to make the Lewis vinegar business his own.
This is a well-written and thoroughly researched historical novel, bursting with details about the wonders of the world fair from the viewpoints of Henry and Juna. Excerpts from Zenobia’s articles for the St. Louis Daily add wider period context, although they do little to advance the plot.
Juna is a naïve character who has allowed her father-in-law to dominate her since the death of her husband in a bicycling accident several years previously. As she tries new things in Chicago, she finds her own independent spirit, as does Henry, who, quickly tiring of Peterson’s company, sneaks out at night to play music with new friends. Neither however, spot the story’s obvious villain, and when the truth comes out in a dramatic ending, it feels out of balance with the slow pace of the novel until that point.
Although the author succumbs to the temptation to dwell on every detail of her research at the expense of plot tension and action, the world’s fair is an enjoyable setting, richly described. Fans of women’s historical fiction should find this an interesting read.