World fairs were immensely popular events in the19th and 20th centuries. Chicago's "World's Columbia Exposition of 1893" wowed its visitors with its dazzling technology displays and promotion of American business and products. In McNamara's story, its aim to promote Chicago is thwarted when a potential investor who would have funded the fair for another year is found murdered in one of the pavilions. Emily Cabot's friend and teacher at the University of Chicago becomes murder suspect number one, and it is up to Emily to clear his name.
Emily represents one of the first American women able to complete a college degree and do some postgraduate research. As spunky and fearless as she seems, she is constantly frustrated by the limits her society places on her, and the obstacles mounted against her by resentful male colleagues and members of the police. Emily's views supporting female suffrage are particularly suspect.
McNamara leads us on a colorful tour of the "White City," as the fair was called. Not ignored is its seamy side, the illegal traveling card games, police graft, midway toughs, and assassination of Chicago's mayor in the fair's final days. Reference is made to the Haymarket affair, the establishment's fear of "foreign anarchists," and the powerful Chicago political machine. Most interesting is the story's pivotal role given to the tireless crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Wells-Barnett was at the fair to promote her pamphlet protesting the fair's exclusion of blacks. Her exposé of the lynching of blacks in the South, and the uncovering of other repressive racial attitudes, are key plot points.
Author's Note offers books, helpful websites, and works consulted.
Discussion Group questions are included.