We honeymooned at Niagara Falls–well, sort of. We made a day trip to Niagara Falls, in the spirit of mythic honeymooners of the past, because we had just gotten married by a Justice of the Peace and were in a light-hearted mood. Why not ride the Maid of the Mist? I had never done it. And it was such a fun experience, wearing the blue raincoats issued to the passengers, studying the magnificent view of the falls from the boat, tourists from other countires all around us, the mist from the falls spraying our faces.
No wonder I couldn’t resist Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Day the Falls Stood Still. Once I started reading this elegant Canadian novel, I couldn’t stop. Set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, from 1915-1923, it tells the story of Bess Heath, a young woman whose life changes when her father loses his job as director of the Niagara Power Company. Yanked out of school at the end of her junior year at Loretto Academy, she returns home to find her father a drunkard, her older sister Isabel bedridden and anorexic after a broken engagement, and her mother working day and night as a dressmaker.
Bess, who now sews and does housework, finally coaxes Isabel to sit outside in the garden while Bess reads aloud. Day after day it is the same routine. Life is made worthwhile by a chance acquaintance with Tom Cole, a riverman whose grandfather had been a local hero, saved many people from drowning, and hauled bodies from the river. Tom himself is based loosely on the historical character William “Red” Hill (1888-1942), said to predict the weather by listening to the falls. Like Red, Tom also rescues people and drags bodies out of the river. Bess temporarily breaks off their friendship when she discovers that he is not just a fisherman. She doesn’t understand until a personal tragedy that his hauling the bodies for a pittance has value for the family.
This beautifully-written historical novel has a strong environmental slant. The power companies started to leech water from the falls in the early 20th century, and Tom protests the magnates’ pushing of electricity. He insists that their advertisements for electricity are creating a hyperbolic need among housewives but Bess has a more practical view: she knows electricity is a timesaver. She comes to side with Tom later when, ironically, he has to work at the Power Company after World War I, does research on the effect of power stations on the falls, and is divided more and more.
Buchanan has a muted but poetic style. In this brilliant novel, she ingeniously interweaves fictional newspaper articles about the Falls, Tom’s grandfather, and Tom with the fascinating narrative. Raised in Niagara Falls, Buchanan knows the beauty of the falls and the attraction of its gorgeous perils to stunters who underestimate the power and lose their lives. She also knows the power plants’ devastation of the falls. In the Author’s Note, she tells us: “…the 1950 Niagara Diversion Treaty is still in use today. With the drastically more lenient diversion limits set out in that treaty, the water plummeting over the Horseshoe and American falls now amounts to about 50 percent of the natural flow during the daylight hours of the tourist season and 25 percent otherwise.” This is one of the most moving novels I’ve read this year. I loved it!
I’d love to see the falls again. They are beautiful. Here’s a picture of me long ago, outdoorsy as ever en route to the falls (at a reststop?).
Here’s another picture we took of the falls.
If you’re interested in Niagara Falls, you might also enjoy Joyce Carol Oates’ The Falls and the 1950s movie, Niagara, a murder mystery with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton.