Gambling everything—including the family farm—Cullen McNamara travels to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with his most recent invention. But the noise in the fair’s Machinery Hall makes it impossible to communicate with potential buyers. In an act of desperation, he hires Della Wentworth, a teacher of the deaf, to tutor him in the art of lip-reading.
The young teacher is reluctant to participate, and Cullen has trouble keeping his mind on his lessons while intently watching her lips. Like the newly invented Ferris wheel, he is caught in a whirl between his girl back home, his dreams as an inventor, and his unexpected attraction to his new tutor. Can he keep his feet on the ground, or will he be carried away?
Cullen McNamara is a cotton farmer from North Carolina with an unusual – and potentially dangerous – problem. He is badly allergic to cotton and to plants in general. In his twenties, he lives with his father and step-mother on their farm and struggles, year after year, with the effect that the cotton has on his lungs and his body. But he accepts this as his lot, and is content for the most part.
But he has a knack for mechanics, and having lost his mother in a fire when he was a child, he has spent much of his spare time inventing and developing an automatic sprinkler system which he believes could save lives and prevent others from suffering similar losses.
Unbeknownst to Cullen, his father has purchased him a place as an exhibitor at the World’s Fair. He is aghast at the thought of the expense at a time of deep recession, but allows himself to be persuaded when his father tells him that he had saved the money and will be able to manage the farm without his help.
Leaving behind his family and his sweetheart, Wanda (who considers herself engaged to him) Cullen leaves for his six months’ stay in Chicago.
As well as his allergy to pollen, Cullen has another problem – he is losing his hearing. His position among the exhibitors in the Machinery Hall, amidst all the incredibly noisy equipment is not helping his condition, and he finds it almost impossible to hear people asking him questions over the noise. Having had several people show interest, but become annoyed with his need to ask them to repeat themselves, he is advised by a Mr Vaughn (a potential investor) that he consider learning to lip-read so that he will be able to carry on a conversation.
At first, Cullen is resistant, but gradually realising he needs to do something, or end up unable to communicate, he approaches one of the teachers at the Pennsylvania Home for Deaf Children, Miss Adeleide Wentworth. Adelaide – known as Della – has had the fear of God put into her by her father with tales of the deceptions men can employ in order to ruin a young, innocent woman; so at first, she is somewhat suspicious of his motives. Eventually, however, she agrees to try to help him and they begin to meet each evening – partly for lessons and partly to tour the Fair.
As their friendship grows, the attraction between them deepens, and what develops is a tender romance with plenty of moments of romantic tension along the way. Della becomes confused and hurt when Cullen starts to put distance between them, which the reader knows he is doing because of his loyalty to Wanda even though he’s known for some time that he doesn’t love her. Eventually, he has to admit to himself that he has fallen irrevocably in love with Della and that he has to break things off with Wanda – but his letter home has an unexpected consequence when she suddenly appears at the Fair.
Della is heartbroken, but fortunately, Ms Gist doesn’t allow the situation to remain unresolved for long. After a short length of time during which Cullen is busy preparing for his make-or-break demonstration, Della comes to realise that they deserve another chance, and it’s not long before apologies and declarations are made and an important question is asked.
This is a gentle and charming story which is strong on background and period detail. The prejudice that prevailed toward the deaf and hard-of-hearing displayed by some of the characters was shocking, although I have no doubt it was accurately portrayed by the author. The descriptions of the Fair and the featured exhibits and events was detailed and informative, and the story of the terrible fire at the Cold Storage Building and its aftermath was both devastating and moving.
The aspect of the novel that dealt with the prevailing ideas about how to help the deaf to function in society was especially interesting. The school at which Della taught adhered to the principle that sign language should never be employed as it would mark out people as deaf and therefore different. To begin with, Della is an adherent of the principle, until something occurs which enables her to empathise more with her deaf students, and to realise that the decision to deny them a method of communication – any method – purely on principle, is wrong and almost cruel.
Both Cullen and Della are well-rounded characters, and although I felt the story took a while to get going, once it did, the pacing was good and I found myself captivated.
I received an ARC of the book in which there was a considerable number of typographical errors, which I hope have been corrected in the finished product.
With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the review copy