Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for It Happened at the Fair includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Deeanne Gist. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Cullen McNamara didn’t set out to be an inventor. He had long ago settled on a life of farming, but his debilitating allergies to cotton—and a tragic history with his mother—continued to steer him toward his idea for inventing an automatic fire sprinkler system. With the support of his father, Cullen attends the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and finds more than just a platform for his invention. A beautiful lip-reading teacher quickly turns his world upside down, and everything he thought he knew about himself—and life—changes.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In It Happened at the Fair, we are introduced to a hard-of-hearing farmer with severe allergic reactions to his crops. What are your first impressions of Cullen McNamara? Why do you think he was so resigned to a life of farming, even though it made him miserable?
2. Cullen’s father manages to persuade Cullen to attend the fair after confessing he has paid the nonrefundable money for Cullen’s travel expenses and fair fees. Despite Cullen’s protests, do you think he was privately happy about this? Why or why not?
3. Describe Cullen and Wanda’s relationship. How does he view his girlfriend? Why is he hesitant to set a date for their wedding?
4. Adelaide Wentworth, the beautiful lip-reading teacher at the fair, is hesitant to trust Cullen at first. Even when he proves his loyalty, she suspects he is lying. What makes her so distrusting? How do you think that defined her character?
5. Della is forbidden from teaching sign language to her pupils because if they were to engage in it, they would be branded as different and therefore less than. How do you feel about that stigma? How has the stigma changed since the 1890s?
6. One of the overarching themes of the culture of America during the World’s Fair appeared to be assimilation—if you weren’t one of us, you were against us. Beyond the sign-language stigma, in what other ways did this culture manifest?
7. Wanda accused Cullen of not being honest when he wrote the letter to break their engagement. She said he should have done it in person and that two more months wouldn’t have mattered. Did Cullen do the right thing in writing Wanda to break off their engagement? Should he have waited and done it in person? Should he have written earlier? What else could he have done?
8. The backdrop of the World’s Fair adds a certain ethereal magic to Cullen and Della’s relationship. How do you think things would have developed under different circumstances?
9. Cullen refuses to retaliate against or reprimand the manual sprinkler salesman, even though he feels certain Bulenberg sabotaged his shed demonstration. How would you have reacted in Cullen’s position? Why do you think he refused to address it?
10. Why do you think Cullen chose not to tell Della when he met her that he was engaged? Do you think he had feelings for her from the very beginning?
11. If someone had lied to you about having a fiancée, would you forgive him under the right circumstances?
12. Vaughn advised Cullen that he should not disclose his loss of hearing to potential clients since it had no bearing on the reliability of his sprinkler system. Yet Cullen felt this might be lying by omission, especially if he knew the client would object to working with someone with a disability. Who was right—Vaughn or Cullen? Why?
13. Discuss the author’s note. Had you wondered if her descriptions were real? Is the Chicago World’s Fair an event you wish you had been able to attend?
14. What were your favorite descriptions from the fair?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Chicago World’s Fair wasn’t just about celebrating inventions—it was about celebrating America and its innovations. Choose a local museum to attend with your book club, preferably one focusing on North American history. If there are multiple museums in your area, make a day of it.
2. Pick three buildings as themes and ask everyone to bring something fun or unique, old or new, that would have gone in one of the “buildings.” Set up three tables and label each with its “building” name and have everyone put their items on the tables as they arrive. For example, “Art Palace” would have paintings, sculpture, music, etc. The “Woman’s Building” would have cooking, lace and tableware, shoes and clothing, and household items. “Horticulture” would have plants, seeds, gardening tools, etc. Be sure to make time for everyone to share why they chose the items they brought.
3. Give each person a card with one of these words written on it: eat, love, hurt, help, more, please, thank you, daddy, mommy, cheese, meat, banana, cereal, cookie, drink, juice, milk, hot, cold, all done. Have them make up a sign for their word and try to communicate it to the group. If the group is a little shy, this can be less intimidating if done in pairs, but it is hilarious when done as a group. If there is someone who knows sign language, have that person demonstrate the real signs afterward. If not, here’s a link to an animation of each sign: http://www.labelandlearn.com/signgamecolor.swf. Sign demonstrations can also be found on YouTube, so feel free to make up your own list of words to play with.
4. In honor of Cullen and Della’s romance, have your book club make their favorite hot cocoa recipes for your next meeting. If the weather is warm, experiment with frozen hot chocolate instead!
A Conversation with Deeanne Gist
What was the biggest motivating factor that made you want to write about the Chicago World’s Fair?
I’m always drawn to events in our country’s past that are strangely absent from our history classes. Why the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition has been left out, I don’t know. Especially since it was such a pivotal event for us. It set the standard for architecture in the upcoming century; it introduced foreign cultures to our amazed population; it wowed the world with our scientific innovations; and it gave women their first official board position recognized and approved by an Act of Congress (all before we had the right to vote). But it was technology that claimed the day as it nipped at the heels of horses, buggies, and man-powered tools. Between that and the evocative backdrop which lent itself to so many possibilities, how could I resist?
What was your favorite detail to write about?
All of them were my favorites! So much so, I had a horrible time trying to decide which details to leave out. I read thousands of pages about the fair, its exhibits, and its programs. All of them fascinating. All of them worthy of being included. Some that I found particularly interesting were among the applications submitted for exhibit space.
One hopeful wanted to make a suite of apartments beneath the waters of Lake Michigan. Someone from England wanted to be placed on exhibition as the Messiah. A father of an “infant prodigy” wanted his baby to introduce the leading orator at the dedication ceremonies. And a vendor of cosmetics wanted to “varnish” half of a “wrinkled hag’s” face with his products and at the end of the fair reveal her features (on that half ) to be “sleek and smooth.” ?
How did you come up with the idea to delete parts of words in dialogue between Cullen and other characters?
When I write I try to get deep into my character’s “head” so that the reader will experience what the protagonist is experiencing. Therefore, if Cullen couldn’t hear a word and had to figure it out by context, then by default, so did the reader.
Do you think it effectively demonstrated what kind of context clues Cullen had to struggle with to understand someone?
Golly, I hope so. It was difficult to find just the right balance. I needed to show his struggle with hearing—and it needed to escalate—yet I didn’t want to irritate the reader, especially the fast readers who were bound to get tripped up by the abbreviated words. Trying to find that line was definitely a challenge.
What do you think about the views of the oralists and manualists from that time period?
I was amazed at how the debate was symbolic of a much deeper struggle going on in America. Keep in mind that only twenty-eight years had passed since the end of the Civil War and each generation was still feeling its aftereffects. Because of that, divisions within the nation were not only suppressed, but also considered downright dangerous.
Before the Civil War, the motivation for teaching sign language was to teach the deaf about Christ. At that time, society was extremely concerned with a person’s soul and inner being. After the Civil War, the motivation for teaching lip-reading was to make everyone more homogeneous, less different. Ever since, our society has become more and more focused on outside appearances and less concerned about the inner essence of an individual. Explains a lot about today’s culture, doesn’t it?
Which side would you have been on?
It’s so hard to project what I’d have done at the time. The oralists really did believe they were doing something benevolent for the deaf community. With hindsight, however, it seems that teaching both oralism and manualism would have been the thing to do.
Della seemed to be ahead of the curve when it came to women’s rights. Did you intentionally write her character as more feminist?
There were many feminists at the World’s Fair in general and in the Woman’s Building in particular. In May, women held a “World’s Congress” at the fair. It marked the second greatest international convention of women. (The first had been in Liverpool ten years prior.) Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Clara Barton were among the speakers. The newspaper reported: “The hall of Washington was a sea of bonnets, with here and there a scared-looking man peering between them.” (Ha. I love the newspapers from back in the day. So hilarious.)
So with that in mind, I felt I needed to have Della in-the-know as far as the feminist movement went. So that’s why she might have appeared “ahead of the curve.” (Great question, by the way.)
Was it true that an automatic fire sprinkler system would have helped prevent the Cold Storage fire?
I can only guess at this since I’m neither a fire investigator nor a fire-prevention expert of any kind. But it seems to me that it would have put out that initial fire in the cupola, doesn’t it to you? If not, it seems that it might have bought the firemen more time. I just don’t know. What do y’all think?
Is that the event that inspired the idea for Cullen’s invention story line?
Believe it or not, I had already decided on his invention before I read about the fire. My inspiration came from looking through a giant book of the fair. It had thousands of pictures. One of them was of an exhibit of fire extinguishers. It struck me as interesting that fire extinguishers were so cutting-edge that they’d inspired not only an exhibit, but also a photograph for the book. When I found out about the Cold Storage fire, it was as if it were meant to be. I refer to those types of happenings as a “God-thing.” ?
Wanda’s speech is riddled with grammatical errors and irregular pronunciations. Was her speech reminiscent of country dialect during that time, or was it used as a device of contrast to demonstrate how differently educated she and Cullen were?
LOL. Girl, don’t ya know we still talk like that around these parts?
I hear that dialect ever’ day o’ my ever-lovin’ life. ? I will admit, however, to wielding it in order to juxtapose the two characters.
Della seemed very mature for being twenty years old. Do you think women were “forced” to mature more quickly in that time because they married younger? Or was Della simply special?
Oh, golly. Now you’re making me tell all my secrets. I don’t really know. I do that with all my female leads, because, I mean, who wants a dimwit as a heroine?
What is your favorite genre to write?
So long as it happened in America, I enjoy writing about it. I’ve written in time periods ranging from 1644 to 1903. I do seem to have an affinity for the turn of the century, though. But then, I like the mid-1800s too. The 1600s were pretty tough to research. Not a lot of records from Pocahontas’s day. Don’t know if I’d want to tackle that time period again. ?
Do you ever miss writing for magazines?
Not for a minute. Not even for a second. The journalism simply supported my “fiction habit.” Writing novels is definitely my first love.
What is your favorite thing about writing love stories?
That initial spark of attraction between a man and a woman, and the push and pull of emotions during the courtship are my favorite. That’s such a fun time. I love to recollect those times in my own life when my man was courting me thirty years ago. A good portion of our courtship took place in Norway because we were oil brats and our parents lived next door to each other. During the summer, when the sun stayed in the sky until 2:00 a.m., Greg would take me to the golf course to teach me how to play golf. He’d take me out there only at 11:00 p.m. because it was totally empty and he didn’t want me holding up any other players.
One of those times, I brought a tripod and camera with me. I set it up and took pictures, then made him do silly things such as pretend he was hitting a ball from the boughs of a tree or I’d laid him low with a golf ball to the head. I’ve attached a picture for you. (Note the golf ball resting on his eye.) LOL. He would NEVER do something like that now and is so embarrassed that he did it then. Hahaha. Love those times.
Do you prefer writing historical novels over modern-day?
I much prefer historicals to contemporaries. Things were simpler, more charming, and the dresses were downright yummy. I also find it intriguing that the things they struggled with are so relevant to what we still struggle with today.
Do you have plans to write another book?
Of course! I’m already deep in the research phase. For a sneak peek at the main characters, download my eShort, Tempest in the White City, from your favorite online store. For even more info, you can sign up for my newsletter at IWantHerBook.com. Then you’ll be privy to all kinds of secrets and exclusives!
Will we be seeing Cullen or Della again?
They might make a cameo appearance in my 2014 novel, but I won’t know for sure until I finish writing it.