Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

When I was in my local public library last week, this book's title caught my eye . I have to preface my review with the fact that I'm enamored with the history of Niagara Falls. This is in part due to the fact that when I was a child, my music teacher, for reasons unknown to me, always had lots of books in her studio on Niagara Falls. The result is that I grew up knowing all about Blondin, Farini, Annie Taylor and the ice jam of 1848. I was thrilled to read about the people who went over the Falls in various contraptions, some of which worked, many of which, did not. Added to this, was my family's yearly visits to Niagara Falls to picnic in a small meadow beneath the huge black water tower - both long since gone. So, little wonder the title alone was enough to push me to pick up the book!

Cathy Marie Buchanan, a native of Niagara Falls, who has the eclectic mix of degrees in biochemistry and business from the University of Western Ontario presents an astonishingly good first offering with The Day the Falls Stood Still.

This historical romance opens with Bess Heath, the protagonist, leaving Loretto Academy at the end of her junior year. Her father, is director of the Niagara Power Company and her family has led a privileged life up to this point. But Bess's life begins to unravel right from the start.

Her father had recommended to all his friends that they invest in aluminum but with the war, the price of aluminum plummets, the smelter fails and many suffer severe financial losses. This leads his boss, Mr. Cruikshank to fire him and his son, Boyce Cruikshank, to call off his engagement to Bess's beautiful, older sister Isabel. Bess's father reacts by drowning his sorrows at the Windsor Hotel while Isabel struggles with depression and some other hidden worry.

When her father does not show up for Bess's final night at Loretto, she and her mother must take a trolley home. Along the way, they are offered help with Bess's trunk by a handsome, young man, Tom Cole, who deftly carries the trunk to Glenview, the family mansion in Silvertown, Niagara Falls.

Bess falls for Tom Cole who we learn is the grandson of Fergus Cole a legendary Niagara Falls figure in the 1800's, known for his fearless rescues and his knowledge of the river. Tom Cole lives at the Windsor Hotel, serving drinks and also works fishing "floaters" out of the river. Not surprisingly, Bess's family are not impressed and her older sister Isabel advises her that "while the Boyce Cruickshanks of the world might be out of the question" she doesn't have to "settle" for a fishmonger.

Despite an attempt to please her family and choose a man they approve of, in the end Bess follows her heart. The second half of the book is therefore devoted to describing her life with Tom Cole and her family's struggles set against the backdrop of life in the early 1900's in Niagara Falls and that of World War I. Buchanan bases the character Tom Cole loosely on William "Red" Hill, Niagara's most famous riverman.

The prose is often elegant, filled with delightful descriptions.
At first blush, Mother's garden seems as immaculate as always. Intricate blooms of columbine nod in midmorning sun. Coneflowers stand erect, their central cores thrust forward, bristling with seeds. But all except the hardiest spires of foxglove and delphinium lay toppled, stalks collapsed under the weight of their own flowers. Peonies droop, their heavy blooms, unsupported by stakes, decaying on the ground. Beneath the garden's canopy of foliage, purslane spreads its weedy tendrils. Fronds of yarrow and tapered blades of crabgrass poke through once orderly beds of hosta and cranesbill.....
Pictures and drawings of the environs of Niagara Falls add to the overall sense of history and understanding of the Falls. Buchanan also drew from the considerable canon of literature on the Falls as evidenced in her acknowledgments at the back of the book.

However, The Day the Falls Stood Still is more than just a historical romance. It is filled with tragedy and sadness. Buchanan writes about Bess's loss of faith in God, the separation of people due to different classes in society, the aftermath of World War I on soldiers, marriages and society, the controversy over the construction of the power dams on the Niagara River and the struggles of ordinary people at the turn of the century to survive personal tragedy. Buchanan's writing also imparts a sense of what life was like for single and married women in Canada during the era of World War I.

Although this book didn't have the ending I longed for, I thoroughly enjoyed this first novel and can't wait to see Cathy Buchanan's next offering.

Book Details:

The Day the Falls Stood Still  by Cathy Marie Buchanan
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd        2008

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