Because I grew up within a few hours of Niagara Falls it was a frequent destination for summertime vacations. I loved everything about the Falls and never saw them as anything but amazing but, of course, there is another story there – the story of human ingenuity and how progress comes at a cost. In her beautifully written book, The Day The Falls Stood Still Cathy Marie Buchanan weaves a complex tapestry of history, folklore, romance, and social commentary that left me breathless with its depth.
In 1915 Bess Heath looks down on the Falls from her room in the convent school where she is being groomed to be a lady. But her days of privilege are about to end because her father has been publicly disgraced and her mother is now supporting the family as a dressmaker. Soon seventeen year old Bess joins her mother in trying to support the rest of the family, a father who has taken to drink and a sister, Isabel, who has taken to bed in despair after being jilted by her fiance.
Bess has captured the attention of Edgar, a promising young man from a good family. The marriage would relieve her family's woes but Bess's heart has been captured by Tom Cole, a riverman, grandson of the legendary Fergus Cole whose daring rescues and remarkable knowledge of the great Niagara River are revered by the locals. Young Tom seems to have inherited his grandfather's love of the river and his incredible skills.
Their courtship and the subsequent changes to Bess's family and to the people of the region plays out against the backdrop of World War I and the advancement of industry that harnesses and binds the power of the river and the Falls to serve an ambitious society.
I loved both Bess and Tom and found them vibrant, believable, fully-developed characters. The story is beautifully balanced between the great shifts going on within a culture and the day-to-day problems and joys of a young family. Bess follows in her mother's footsteps as a skillful dressmaker and is soon a darling of the local society ladies. Back from the war, Tom wants to live as his grandfather did. He is horrified by the corruption of the river he loves and yet the only way he can support his growing family is to go to work for the very people who are abusing it.
In many ways this is a story about corruption. What happens to a natural wonder when man decides to use it to serve him? What happens to a man of integrity when the only way he can support his children is by betraying his values? Even Bess feels the sting when the society lady who is her primary patron, withdraws her patronage because Bess refuses to transform a gown her mother beaded to suit the woman's fancy.
Like The Sea Captain's Wife, another book that I loved, this story is told with lovely attention to the day-to-day necessities of a woman's life: planting gardens, tending babies, sewing for a family, caring for elders. The gentle, romantic story of Bess and Tom trying to build a life interweaves with the drama of war, industry, and a shifting society. There is heart-break and tragedy but always a sense of love and hope.
The book is enhanced by some wonderful vintage photographs of the Niagara region and parts of the story are told by antique newspaper clippings. This is a beautifully-told story which left me with a lot to think about and to dream about. Very well done.
Thanks for reading.