The Day the Falls stood still / Cathy Marie Buchanan
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2009
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2009
Perhaps the title will give you a bit of a hint that this is a novel about Niagara Falls. It's a romantic tale awash in the history of the town of Niagara Falls as well as the ever-present awareness of the Falls themselves. These three strands, romance, history, and the power of nature, entwine to create a richly layered novel that was hard to put down once begun.
In 1915, our narrator Bess Heath is 17. She has just finished another year at the Loretto Academy, but discovers that she will not be returning in the fall. Her father has lost his job. This means their family has lost its financial footing as well as its status in the community. Her father now spends most of his days in a hotel bar; her mother has returned to dressmaking to bring in some cash, sewing for the women with whom she used to socialize. Bess' older sister Isabel is moody, despondent -- she won't eat or talk and stays in her room much of the time. Bess knuckles down and begins helping her mother with sewing, and doing much of the cooking and household work. But she has one bright spot amongst all this doom and gloom -- Tom Cole, a handsome working man she met on the streetcar the day she was returning from the Loretto Academy. He helped her with her trunk (an unwieldy burden for public transit!) and she can't seem to forget him. It helps that he continues to drop by with fish to sell, as an excuse to see her. Despite her mother's warnings Bess continues to foster both her own attraction to him and his reciprocal attentions.
Halfway into the story things change -- tragedy in Bess' family sends her into Tom's arms, without regard for her 'station' in life. She grows up quickly: she has to make a living as a seamstress, bear two children and see Tom go off to war. Through all this she never loses her strong, unique perspective. Even if the romantic arc of the story sounds predictable, Bess' voice makes it into a personal story rather than a cliché, of interest because it is happening to her.
There is a lot going on in this book in addition to the romance between Bess and Tom. Interspersed in the text are historical images of actual events and people of Niagara Falls, including one of William 'Red' Hill, an inspiration for the character of Tom. Hill was a famed riverman who knew the Niagara River in all its moods, and performed daring rescues more than once. Tom also has this knowledge of the river and is acknowledged by the town for his skill, but he does not dare to flaunt the river -- it must be respected. Tom also reveals an environmental consciousness; at the time this story takes place, hydro companies were just beginning to channel the river for their own electrical needs. Tom talks about the effects this is having on the mighty Niagara itself, raising issues about the environment, about corporate control of natural resources, which are still valid today. The war's effects on society in general, and specifically on Bess and Tom's family, is another element woven into this tale. The focus on the river, and on the historical facts of the developing town of Niagara Falls, creates a multitude of fascinating scenes and discussion points; I'd love to read this with a book club. All these elements come together in a moving conclusion which I must admit had me verklempt.
I was lucky enough to read this as an ARC, but it is available in bookstores as of today -- and Cathy will be here at The Indextrious Reader tomorrow to share a bit about her experiences in researching this novel. Lots of library love there!