“It was the last day of our old lives, and we didn’t even know it.”
So begins Richard Peck’s Fair Weather, a wonderful story narrated by 13 year old Rosie Beckett. Rosie lives in the country with her parents, her Granddad, her big sister, Lottie, and her little brother, Buster. Rosie’s life is limited to her family’s farm, the one room schoolhouse, and an occasional trip to town. Her biggest excitement is wondering what will happen between her sister and the young man courting her, since her mother doesn’t approve of him. One day, though, a letter from her Aunt Euterpe arrives and her new life begins.
It’s 1893, and the entire world is abuzz with excitement over the World’s Columbian Exposition taking place in Chicago. Euterpe, their rarely seen or heard from aunt, invites Rosie, her siblings, and her mother to visit Chicago and experience “the wonder of the age.” This is the first time people have eaten Cracker Jacks or taken a ride on a Ferris Wheel. For many, it is the first time they’ve seen electric power lighting up the night sky. Rosie’s mother sends the children, but is going to send her ticket back. Granddad, a man with a mind of his own and a dog for a sidekick, thwarts her plans by taking the ticket and joining the children on their first trip to a big city.
When they arrive in Chicago, the contrast between life in the big city and life on the poor country farm is clear to all the travelers immediately. Rosie is astonished by how stiff and formal Aunt Euterpe is and can’t believe she was raised by her mischievous Granddad. Unintentionally at first, and later with great purpose, Rosie and Lottie begin to bring Aunt Euterpe out of her widow’s weeds and back into the land of the living. Their exploits at the fair are funny and enjoyable to read as Rosie recounts all the new sights, sounds, and smells around her. In the end, the Beckett family’s eyes are opened to the changes coming to their lives, both personally and globally.
Aside from being a great story, Fair Weather is also a good source of factual information about the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Photographs of the fair are included throughout the book to complement the descriptions of what Rosie sees. Peck has also written an author’s note about events that took place after the fair and its impact on our world. I read a non-fiction book about the Exposition years ago and was fascinated by the ingenuity and incredible work that went into this event. Fair Weather would make a great introduction to this time period.
I think this book would be best for fifth grade age and up. There are a few instances when Rosie notes the scantily clad dancers at the fair, though that is as much description as she gives, and sadly, we probably see much more at the pool now on a regular basis. In any case, you may want to pre-read it or use this as a read-aloud and edit as you see fit for your children. Also there is a recurring theme of things not being what they seem that may be better explored by older students. Lillian Russell, the famous actress, is scorned for being a “fallen woman” because she has been married three times. When Rosie and her family meet her, though, they realize she is kind and gracious and “everything that Lottie would like to be”—and Rosie feels the same way. Some of Granddad’s tall tales turn out to be true, and Lottie’s beau is not what her mother fears. Any of these situations would be great discussion starters for older students.
I have enjoyed many of Richard Peck’s novels, and Fair Weather is one of his best. It seems like the late 1800s sometimes is a brief mention in history books, stuck in between Reconstruction and World War I. This is a book that draws readers into the story and teaches them as well. I think that if you give it a try, you will not be disappointed!