Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Day The Falls Stood Still - Cathy Marie Buchanan

A version of this review was posted to Royal Reviews on November 3, 2009.

The Day The Falls Stood Still
Cathy Marie Buchanan
HarperCollins Publishers
Copyright Date: 2009
978-1401340971

The Amazon.com description:
Steeped in the intriguing history of Niagara Falls, this epic love story is as rich, spellbinding, and majestic as the falls themselves.

1915. The dawn of the hydroelectric power era in Niagara Falls. Seventeen-year-old Bess Heath has led a sheltered existence as the youngest daughter of the director of the Niagara Power Company. After graduation day at her boarding school, she is impatient to return to her picturesque family home near Niagara Falls. But when she arrives, nothing is as she had left it. Her father has lost his job at the power company, her mother is reduced to taking in sewing from the society ladies she once entertained, and Isabel, her vivacious older sister, is a shadow of her former self. She has shut herself in her bedroom, barely eating--and harboring a secret.

The night of her return, Bess meets Tom Cole by chance on a trolley platform. She finds herself inexplicably drawn to him--against her family's strong objections. He is not from their world. Rough-hewn and fearless, he lives off what the river provides and has an uncanny ability to predict the whims of the falls. His daring river rescues render him a local hero and cast him as a threat to the power companies that seek to harness the power of the falls for themselves. As their lives become more fully entwined, Bess is forced to make a painful choice between what she wants and what is best for her family and her future.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of Niagara Falls, at a time when daredevils shot the river rapids in barrels and great industrial fortunes were made and lost as quickly as lives disappeared, The Day the Falls Stood Still is an intoxicating debut novel.

Cathy Marie Buchanan has woven a fascinating mix of history and fiction in this, her first novel. Everything about it shows that balance between what was real and what she chose to make up. The events described really do feel like they could have happened as she described them. That's because many of them really did happen. I can't say for sure if all of them did, but last month I was on a tour of Niagara Falls, and that's what inspired me to pick up this book. While on the tour, we saw the wreck of the grounded scow, which still sits on the riverbed today. We also saw photos of some of the daredevils and stunt-people who ventured the falls and survived (or not). All of that really added to the atmosphere of The Day The Falls Stood Still for me, making it more 'real', as I had an idea of the historical reality that grounds this story. However, I really don't think you have to have seen the falls to see the grandeur and awe they inspire in this book.

The other thing that added to the mix of history and fiction combined in this book is the use of archival photos at the start of many of the chapters. There's the ice bridge, pictures of the stunts, the powerhouses, and the falls themselves (among many others).

Tom Cole is, according to the author's note, closely based on a historical figure called William "Red" Hill. I can't say anything about it, not knowing the local history, but Tom is an interesting character, as is Bess Heath, the protagonist and viewpoint character of the story.

The Day The Falls Stood Still is rich with details and imagery of the First World War years, all told from the point of view of a woman who stayed at home to support the children while her husband enlisted. It's interesting the way life in those years is portrayed in this book. Scrimping and saving on food, while still wearing individually tailored dresses in fancy materials with embroidery and beadwork.

By the end of the book I found that I really had gotten to like Bess, and she'd become a 'real' person to me with all her flaws and quirks. All of the characters filled out and became true individuals, even the kids. However, I found the book a bit slow starting. That could have been just me though. Regardless of a slow start, it really took off at the start of the second part, and kept me up late.

The Day The Falls Stood Still is a book I'm glad to have read, and I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye out for anything else by Cathy Marie Buchanan in the future.

This first photo from my trip to Niagara Falls captures the awe and majesty of the falls. Having seen it, I can't believe the attitude of some of the characters in The Day The Falls Stood Still that it would be a good thing for the falls to be entirely diverted into power generation.

IIRC, the falls are more or less diverted at night now, but the flow is restored during the day. I don't know if that restores all the things that Tom Cole noted in his journals, such as the standing wave though.


The second photo was taken from the bus tour I was on, I suspect this is one of the power houses mentioned in the book. However, nobody on the tour identified the building.
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