A Parisienne in Chicago by Madame Leon Grandin – Book Review

A Parisienne in Chicago: Impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition by Madame Leon Grandin, translated by Mary Beth Raycraft

In July of 1892, Madame Leon Grandin and her husband boarded a ship in Le Havre heading for New York. They stayed for six weeks with relatives in New York, then headed across the country to Chicago, where her husband would be working on the Columbian Fountain project for the 1893 World’s Fair. “A Pariesienne in Chicago” is Madame Leon Grandin’s travelogue of her time in America, focusing extensively on social customs and societal norms in the United States and in Chicago in particular.

As I was reading Madame Leon Grandin’s account of her time in Chicago in 1892 and 1893, the quote about the past being a foreign country was continually running through my head. Madame Grandin traveled from Paris to the place that I live, but the Chicago of 120 years ago is nearly as foreign to me as it was to her, even discounting the changes in technology between then and now. The things that really got to me don’t seem like big things, but they were so unexpected I was just shocked, things like Thanksgiving being a religious holiday where people headed to church in the morning instead of watching parades and football.

Being as this was a translation of a 19th century travelogue focusing on social practices in Chicago, I was amazed at how completely engaging “A Parisienne in Chicago” was. I literally did not want to put it down because Madame Grandin’s voice was so engaging. I attribute this both to Grandin’s writing style (which included lots of exclamation points!) and to Mary Beth Raycraft’s skillful translation. I do think it is important to note that, the subtitle not withstanding,  only a very small portion of the book actually deals directly with the World’s Fair, so if that’s your main impetus for picking this book up you may be disappointed. That being said, I think this was much more interesting for the social history it highlighted than it would have been if it were just Grandin’s impressions of the World’s Fair.

Highly recommended.

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9 comments to A Parisienne in Chicago by Madame Leon Grandin – Book Review

  • I have to admit that I started reading your review because of the reference to the World Fair. In the end it sounds like a fascinating read, even if it only looks at the World Fair for a small amount of time. I see this is one of the books that mentioned “Le Havre” :-)

    • That’s really why I wanted to read it in the first place too, the reference from the World’s Fair, but it was definitely an interesting read even though it didn’t concentrate on the Fair for very long. Yes, it is one of the Le Heavtre books!

  • Sounds like just the kind of non-fiction read that I so enjoy; I’ll have to pick this up.

  • Of course, anyone that has read Devil in the White City would probably be interested in this. That period of time, for me, is positively fascinating. Everything from the fact that buildings were always burning down, to the difficulty in transportation, the rights of and attitude towards women…the whole bit. I must chase this one down!

  • This sounds like something I would love. I love the focus on “on social customs and societal norms” — the anthropologist in me is intrigued.

  • I just read about this on Lilithcat’s blog and am sad that I have never heard about it, being Chicagoan myself! It’s already on my wish list :-)

  • How interesting! I never knew Thanksgiving was celebrated that way, but it really makes sense.

  • Delighted to hear that Chicagoans are enjoying Madame Grandin’s spirited account! Since I am not from Chicago, I discovered the city by retracing her steps and in the process, have become just as taken with the city as she was. Her lively tone made for a fun translation project. Yes, the title is a bit misleading — since she was in the city during the year prior to the opening of the fair, that is just a small part of her experience. Although life in Chicago is her primary focus, I also really enjoyed her chapter about her adventures in New York City. Bonne lecture!

    • Her story was so intriguing, though, that I didn’t even mind the slightly misleading title, even though my initial impetus for reading the book was to read about the World’s Fair.