In an age where we use fast modes of transport like cars and trains, it’s hard to imagine that the United States were experiencing a very different kind of “wheel fever” in the 1880s. The invention of the bicycle and its rise in popularity (after the somewhat failed ‘velocipede’) changed transportation and leisure activities for many people.
Sarah A. Chrisman, known for her non-fiction books on the Victorian Era and her own full time commitment to historic re-enactment by living as people did the 1890s, chooses the emergence of the bicycle as an interesting vehicle (excuse the pun) to tell her charming little story First Wheel In Town.
Kitty, a young dressmaker in her 20’s, seems to be the only enthusiast in the village of Chetzemoka when the village doctor, Elijah Brown, receives his new bicycle through the post. Seeing as Kitty is a young widow and Dr. Brown is a charming young bachelor, you don’t need to think long before you know where this story is heading. When the opportunity for a possibly kitsch-like romance emerges so early in a book, many authors would be hard-pressed to stay interesting. However, Chrisman does.
The novella unfolds as a story with an exciting bicycle-against-horse-race, damaging town gossip, and a doctor who saves people’s lives by delivering fast help on his bicycle. With all the elements of an American 19th-century small town and lots of romance, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the popular 1990’s TV-series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. True, the romantic plotline of First Wheel In Town is predictable and maybe a little too eager. It’s fair to say that the book is no literary masterpiece, but it does make for a really pleasant and accessible read.
So what makes this book stand out so much, as far as I’m concerned? It’s the details. Did you know that ordinary trousers would tear immediately if you would try to get on a 19th century bicycle? Or that therefore grown men started to wear knickerbockers as part of their special bicycle outfit? Because Chrisman and her husband live as if they were living in the 1890s – complete with clothing, several bicycles, a period home with matching interior and whatnot – she’s one to know best. The way the author incorporates little pieces of historic information on subjects like dresses, bike technicalities, home interior and cooking makes it so you can really be immersed in the world of the late 19th century.
I’ve read a lot of modern novels with a 19th-century setting, and personally I find that Chrisman’s book is the most convincing I’ve read so far in conveying this long-forgotten world. Arguably, she does play around with some historical events, but the overall feel is so incredibly well done. As far as I’m concerned, to enjoy a quiet afternoon with an uncomplicated little Victorian story (and a cup of tea), I might equally well choose Chrisman as Frances Hodgson Burnett. I am curious to see whether Chrisman has been able to continue this achievement in the sequels Love Will Find A Wheel and A Rapping At The Door.