Book Talk: *The Day the Falls Stood Still*, by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Disclosure: I purchased this as an e-book to read on my Amazon Kindle. *I am an Amazon Associate and an IndieBound Affiliate. Purchasing links are provided by Amazon.com and IndieBound.org, and will generate a small referral fee for me.*

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie 
Buchanan
The Day the Falls Stood Still
Cathy Marie Buchanan
Voice (2009), Hardcover (ISBN 1401340970 / 9781401340971) (E-book 9781401394752)
Fiction (historical), 320 pages

Opening Lines: “The stone walls of Loretto Academy are so thick I can sit cured up on a windowsill, arms around the knees tucked under my chin. It stands on a bluff not far from the Horseshoe Falls, and because I have been a student long enough to rank a room on the river side, I have only to open a pair of shutters to take in my own private view of the Niagara.”

Book description: 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 the falls. But when she arrives, nothing is as she 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, Bess’s 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 falls for themselves. As the couple’s 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.

Comments: I’ve looked forward to reading Cathy Marie Buchanan’s first novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, ever since I started seeing reviews of it cropping up several months ago. I tend to prefer historical fiction that deals with more recent history, and the early 20th century – a time of such great change in the world – is a period that particularly interests me. I’m intrigued by Canada, the only foreign country I’ve visited. And I love waterfalls. The abundance of waterfalls was one of the most appealing things about living in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and I’ve never forgotten my family’s one visit to Niagara Falls when I was a child; I’ve always wanted to see it again. However, according to the Author’s Note at the end of Buchanan’s book, the Falls were much more of a sight to see a hundred years ago.

This well-researched novel is set in a period of great change in the Niagara River and the area around the Falls, as hydroelectric power was becoming a greater force (no pun intended), and it views those changes through their effects on a family…because although the river plays a significant role, this is the story of a family: the family of Bess Heath Cole.

Buchanan divides the novel into two parts. Book One is a more personal, intimate story, as the Heath family is forced to adjust to a change in their financial and social standing by taking in sewing and trying to ensure an advantageous marriage for at least one of their two daughters. However, these things don’t always go as planned, and the eligible young man Mrs. Heath has in mind for her older daughter Isabel has his eye on her younger sister Bess. Bess, however, is quietly developing a relationship with Tom Cole, a young fisherman whose late grandfather, Fergus, passed on his legendary knowledge of the river (and his daring rescues of those who met trouble at the Falls) to him. When these two eventually do come together, it’s in the aftermath of personal tragedy and in the midst of the First World War.

Book Two is larger in scope, as it starts out with Bess as a war bride getting started as a seamstress in her own right, soon to become a mother while her husband fights on the battlegrounds of Europe. When Tom returns from the war, he needs to get to know his wife and son, and to get reacquainted with the river, which is changing as the new power plants are being built to harness his power, and where his knowledge is more needed than ever. The political and ecological effects of development are a big part of this story, and it’s interesting to note that some of the same debates are still going on today.

The Day the Falls Stood Still didn’t really become the novel I expected it to be until Book Two, and although it held my interest all the way through, it was the last third of the book that really grabbed me, and I found its final chapters riveting and touching. I liked the way that the issues of the day were integrated into the story, and I think that this was largely accomplished through Buchanan’s development of her characters. The story is narrated from Bess’ first-person perspective, and I didn’t entirely warm up to her for a while. However, the character truly grows over the course of the novel, and she became someone I could believe in; I think I could say the same for the book as a whole, to be honest, as I felt that it strengthened as it went along.

I enjoyed my trip back in time to Niagara with Cathy Buchanan, and I’m wondering where she will take readers next.

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