Land of Joys: Exploring the Heart of America Through the Lens of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis

Discover the depth and complexity of America’s heart and soul through Steve Wiegenstein’s exploration of the 1904 World’s Fair in his novel, Land of Joys. Follow the matriarch of a family through a tumultuous time in American history and witness

A modern look at St. Louis by Roger Hunt

To truly really love and appreciate what you have and tolerate the good and bad. You’d have to live in it and try your best to find out what makes it works and what makes it destructive. In addition, you can’t say you love St. Louis, yet you’ve abandoned it, and moved away from it, or divide it, and only care when it is important for your own egotism.

I found a book online, called ‘Land of Joys,” which explores St. Louis storied past, and pretty much summed up a city that was earmarked for greatness. Yet today, it seems as if, the greatness is still trying to find its development, if you will.

Furthermore, I see cranes all around the an area that is destined for a city’s rejuvenation. Just take a drive pass Forest Park, and check out Clayton to the west, Cortex, Midtown and Central West End to the east. And you will see where I am going with this, now, let’s get to this book.

Aarik Danielsen

Columbia Daily Tribune

To better understand what makes America’s heart tick, in and out of rhythm, Steve Wiegenstein went to the fair.

The Columbia novelist didn’t make some brief summertime pilgrimage, but went back more than a century. To St. Louis, and to trace a path around its fairgrounds that took years to complete.

“If you were to imagine an event that summed up the American experience at the turn of the 20th century, you’d probably come up with something like the World’s Fair,” Wiegenstein wrote on his blog.

That seminal event, which indeed summed a moment — and prophesied moments to come — forms the physical and historical center of Wiegenstein’s newest novel, “Land of Joys.” The book continues one family’s story, told over four novels now, spurred by bent-but-never-broken matriarch Charlotte Turner.

“Land of Joys” also, as is Wiegenstein’s way, tells a more fathomless story: of America’s virtues and sins, of a union that grows both more imperfect and more compelling over time.

A main character for the ages

With “Land of Joys,” Weigenstein once again travels alongside Turner, occasionally steering her toward satisfaction or near ruin. The author introduced readers to Turner as a 25-year-old newlywed; manifest in fresh ink, she is now a grandmother. Turner’s resilience, expressed in every circumstance, remains the core of these books, Wiegenstein said in a recent interview.

Turner owns impulses toward protecting, and generously giving herself to, the youngest generation of her family, he said.

As the Turner clan winds its way through 1904, Charlotte’s son, Adam, writes their Ozarks home into the popular book “The Hill-Billies of Heaven Holler.” Converting the book into a 3-D exhibit leads the Turners to St. Louis. There, the family encounters complicated questions of identity and truly visceral threats.

Charlotte Turner’s instincts, stirred up here, exhibit the character’s continued evolution.

“Through the course of the books, she’s moved from idealism to a very sort of hard-nosed realism,” Wiegenstein said. “… She’s no longer as swept away by grand ideas as she was at the beginning. But at the same time, she’s willing to entertain people’s grand ideas.”

The author confessed a continued admiration for his central character and, with a laugh, regret at constantly imperiling her. Wiegenstein has grown alongside Turner, he said; writing her through recent political stresses and a pandemic, he’s been stripped of lingering naiveté.

“She’s not a cynic, in the sense of scoffing, but she just sizes (people) up much more realistically. And I think that’s probably rubbed off on me some,” he said.

“Land of Joys” not only follows the Turners further, but falls in line behind Wiegenstein’s only book outside the series. “Scattered Lights,” his superlative short-story collection from 2020, made the list of finalists for the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction.

While traveling through “Land of Joys,” Wiegenstein tripped over the book’s ambitions, its “great themes,” he said. Trying to address capital-letter issues of race and other distinctly American concerns can paralyze a writer, he added.

Setting the book aside to finish “Scattered Lights” recentered the deceptively simple place of story.

“If there are themes that emerge, fine. But let the story drive the work,” Wiegenstein said of what he learned.

Fair ground for another story

"Land of Joys"

Pop culture shapes our pictures of the history preceding us. No doubt, many prospective readers first attach the 1944 Judy Garland film “Meet Me in St. Louis” to the World’s Fair, Wiegenstein said.

Reading deeper histories such as James Gilbert’s “Whose Fair? Experience, Memory, and the History of the Great St. Louis Exposition” appropriately complicated his understanding. Designed with a bent toward enlightenment, even individual betterment, the fair exercised another impact on blue-collar visitors, Wiegenstein said.

Impressive exhibits towered over fairgoers, their power explicitly “intended to intimidate you,” he said.

“An ordinary person would feel tiny and small” amid great buildings and sculptures, he added.

People left outside the World’s Fair formed a disconcerting mirror image with those on display inside. Black Americans were treated as unwelcome, Wiegenstein said; and within the fair, an outsized exhibit dedicated to the Philippines exoticized and dehumanized its residents, rather than celebrated them.

The fair resembled something like a “Roman triumph” with conquered and colonized people on exhibit for white people’s watching eyes, he said.

Scrutinizing history, Wiegenstein sees both singular moments and a longer story.

“Writing historical fiction, for me anyway, always seems to reflect onto the present,” he said. “‘Cause what’s the point if it doesn’t? It just becomes escapism.”

A common thread tethers the 1904 World’s Fair and America in 2023 — namely, misplaced hopes. In sure ways, modern life outpaces a century ago; yet we still embrace the same utopian ideals, a sense that we can and will recreate ourselves.

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