1958 Honor: The Great Wheel (with not-so-great characters)


Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

The Great Wheel by Robert Lawson was one of the 1958 Newbery Honor recipients. God knows why. More on that later.

Conn sets out from Ireland bound for his Uncle Michael’s New York business. On the voyage, he meets Trudy, a lovely German girl bound for Wisconsin. In NYC, Conn quickly learns the business of digging sewers and becomes his uncle’s right hand man. However, Aunt Honora had predicted that Conn would travel west and ride a great wheel. Enter Uncle Patrick, who hires Conn to work on a project Mr. Ferris is creating for the Chicago World’s Fair. Conn moves west and helps with every phase of construction of the first Ferris Wheel, a now familiar staple of fairs and carnivals. He also dreams of meeting Trudy there and writes her letters (which he can’t mail since he didn’t get her last name). Lo, during the last week of the fair, Trudy arrives! A shocker, I know. Conn gets hung up over Trudy’s family money, so it takes the pair until the last day of the fair to sort out their differences. They marry and move to Wisconsin to raise fat, happy cows and children.

The Good: If you’ve ever wondered how a Ferris Wheel is built, this is the perfect book for you. It goes into a fair amount of detail (way more than I cared about, for sure) on each stage of the construction. The illustrations are also excellent.

The Bad: Pacing is uneven and the character development is minimal. Secondary characters are caricatures built on stereotypes, lashed together with racial or ethnic epithets.

The Ugly: This book is BRIMMING with objectionable names. Every minor character’s nationality/group is mentioned before each appearance, and generally tagged with slang like mick, box head, etc. I realize some of this appears worse in hindsight than it would in its own context, but it’s still jarring. Sexism also runs rampant, highlighted in passages like this.

I’d conditionally recommend this for late elementary/early middle schoolers with a strong interest in engineering or construction. Beyond that, this book is better left forgotten.


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