The Day the Falls Stood Still (Buchanan)

The Day the Falls Stood Still - Cathy Marie Buchanan

I'm a sucker for anything waterfall-related, fictional, non-fictional or pictorial, so Buchanan had me at "hello" with this quite charming historical novel of a middle-class World War I era young woman on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Her family hits hard times almost exactly at the same time as she falls for a young man - fictional name Tom Cole, but he is a reworking of an actual historical figure, a riverman named William "Red" Hill - who is knowledgeable about, and a passionate advocate for, that part of the Niagara River that flows through the famous falls and gorge. However, she gives her hero (and he really is a hero in the best fictional romance tradition) a different set of circumstances, and the ending of the novel will not please all readers. I quite liked the ending, but I won't say more for fear of spoiling.

 

For me, a major part of the enjoyment of this novel was the re-telling of a number of famous anecdotes about the Niagara Falls of Tom's generation, and that of his grandfather of the mid 19th-century. It was in the 1840s, in fact, that "the Falls stood still" because of an ice jam in Lake Erie, and Tom's grandfather, like Tom himself, had much ado to save the lives of fools who at various times (including that one) did not respect the enormous power and danger of the river. In fact, the cumulative effect of the anecdotes in this book - those I knew and those I didn't - was to confirm my impression that Niagara Falls stunters and barrel-riders are, to the man and woman, prime candidates for the Darwin Award.

 

The main action of the novel coincides in time with the beginning of the exploitation of Niagara for hydro-electric power, and also the beginning of the argument (which will never fully die, though it appears to have been quieted by an international agreement ca. 1950) over how much water can be removed from the river for industrial purposes - and how much by each country, since it's an international river - without compromising the truly iconic nature of the Falls as a tourist attraction. Tom, who identifies with the river at a visceral level, is of course an opponent of the development, and he has allies to this day; Bess, his wife and our narrator-protagonist, is more centrally situated in the argument, being sympathetic to Tom but the daughter of a power-plant manager (albeit one who loses his job).

 

Bess is also a seamstress (it's how she keeps her little family going while Tom is away fighting in the gruesome battles of WWI - and thereafter, as he struggles to find work) and, for my taste, a little too much of her narrative is concerned with dressmaking details - but that's nitpicking. The dressmaking has a function in linking up the various female characters of the plot, it moves the story forward in a couple of places, and some of the detail is helpful in establishing the historical feel of the novel - it's as legitimate in that respect as the horrible details of trench warfare that Tom brings home with him.

 

This was a 3-star family story read that got its fourth star because it hit upon and handled well one of my own personal hobby-horses, Niagara Falls.