Sunday, June 13, 2010

Three Rivers Rising by Jame Richards

Three Rivers Rising is a historical novel written in free verse about the Johnstown Flood. This novel is a great success mainly because the author was able to successfully weave a believable romantic storyline with a dramatic historical event. Jame Richards was also able to create full bodied, realistic characters despite the sparse nature of writing in verse.

Many Canadians may not know about the Johnstown Flood of 1889, unless you happen to be a fan of Catherine Marshall (author of Christy) and have read her book, Julie, which is about a teenage girl in 1937 who experiences similar if not identical circumstances to those of the Johnstown Flood. The book is largely based upon the research the author did on the Johnstown Flood but is set in an later time period.

Three Rivers Rising is set in Johnstown, Pennsylvania and area. Johnstown is situated at the junction of the Stony Creek and the Little Conemaugh Rivers. Above it lies Lake Conemaugh. Lake Conemaugh is not a natural lake. It was formed when an earthen dam was constructed by the state of Pennsylvania for its canal system in the early 1800's. Over the years the dam is gradually neglected and it becomes a standard joke that every year the dam will fail. If it does, the towns downstream from Lake Conemaugh would be subjected to a devastating flood.

Celestia Whitcomb is a rich young girl whose family comes to spend it's summers at the clubhouse on Lake Conemaugh. One day during the summer of 1888, Celestia meets Peter, the clubhouse's hired help who lives below the lake in Johnstown. They begin a friendship that gradually turns romantic - in essence, a forbidden love. Peter warned by his father not "to develop a taste for things" he can't have, continues to meet Celestia in the woods near the clubhouse. The relationship although innocent is beset by the effects of class prejudice. When the relationship is finally discovered Celestia's family decides to send her away to Paris with her Aunt Mimsy. However, fate intervenes and it is her sister Estrella who is suddenly sent off. Celestia and her family leave the Johnstown area for the winter and return in the following spring of 1889. It is at this time that Celestia decides to make a fateful decision that changes the course of her life and that of her family.

Richards tells her story mainly in the voices of Peter and Celestia. But she also fleshes out the narrative with the story of Maura whose husband, Joseph conducts the one of the many trains that run on the Pennsylvania Railway line through the Johnstown area. There is also Kate's story whose husband Early drowned shortly after they were married and Celestia's father, Whitcomb, whose narrative comes near the end of the novel.

This book had all the ingredients to make it exciting: the forbidden romantic element and the tension created in not knowing if Peter and Celestia would choose to stay together as well as the tension created by the event of the Johnstown flood.
The endnotes of the novel contain a chronology on the South Fork Dam and provide readers with selection of fiction and nonfiction books on the Johnstown Flood.
I almost wish that Richards had written this book as a full novel in prose. If anything, Jame Richards has shown me that I shouldn't overlook a novel in verse. I look forward to reading more of Jame Richards fiction. Definitely one of the best YA books of 2010.

Book Details:

Three Rivers Rising by Jame Richards
Alfred A. Knopf: New York 2010
293 pp.

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