Book Review: The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Day the Falls Stood Still
The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary:   Tom Cole, the grandson of a legendary local hero, has inherited an uncanny knack for reading the Niagara River's whims and performing daring feats of rescue at the mighty falls. And like the tumultuous meeting of the cataract's waters with the rocks below, a chance encounter between Tom and 17-year-old Bess Heath has an explosive effect. When they first meet on a trolley platform, Bess immediately recognizes the chemistry between them, and the feeling is mutual. 

But the hopes of young love are constrained by the 1915 conventions of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Tom's working-class pedigree doesn't suit Bess's family, despite their recent fall from grace. Sacked from his position at a hydroelectric power company, Bess's father has taken to drink, forcing her mother to take in sewing for the society women who were once her peers. Bess pitches in as she pines for Tom, but at her young age, she's unable to fully realize how drastically her world is about to change. 

Set against the resounding backdrop of the falls, Cathy Marie Buchanan's carefully researched, capaciously imagined debut novel entwines the romantic trials of a young couple with the historical drama of the exploitation of the river's natural resources. The current of the river, like that of the human heart, is under threat: "Sometimes it seems like the river is being made into this measly thing," says Tom, bemoaning the shortsighted schemes of the power companies. "The river's been bound up with cables and concrete and steel, like a turkey at Christmastime." 

Skillfully portraying individuals, families, a community, and an environment imperiled by progress and the devastations of the Great War, The Day the Falls Stood Still beautifully evokes the wild wonder of its setting, a wonder that always overcomes any attempt to tame it. But at the same time, Buchanan's tale never loses hold of the gripping emotions of Tom and Bess's intimate drama. The result is a transporting novel that captures both the majesty of nature and the mystery of love.

My five star reads are pretty far between but when I fall for one, I fall hard. I loved everything about this book. This is why I read literary historical fiction. From the moment Bess begins speaking, I was swept away in her story and I enjoyed it all, even the bittersweet, poignant end. It didn't take very long at all to fall into her voice and exist in those moments with her. The author was skilled at giving a sense of Bess and her internal voice while still allowing the reader to be an intimate spectator.

As always with books I love most, I have the least to say. There's something about the emotions stirred in reading them that really speak to me that make me want to shy away from saying much to the detriment of the experience of it all for other readers. Suffice it to say that for every travail that comes calling at Bess' door and her ability to get on even when she doubts her ability to do so and has no idea what pushes her forward, she is at every turn interesting and worth getting to know. The other characters, her parents, Tom, Isabel, Kit & the host of others we meet along the way were well drawn and compelling. The addition of the Falls is not a backdrop but an enduring character in its own right. Having been to the Falls & fallen in utter love & sheer awe of it, I am always interested in stories of how people of the area have lived and been shaped by the river, power companies and all the politics that have surrounded it. Something about abiding with a natural wonder that is constantly being tamed by man fascinates me. Truthfully, I know that the Falls flow at 50% and I find it so mesmerizing, potent and a little horrifying, that I can't quite wrap my brain around what it would be like full on. I was often torn like Bess, on wanting the progress of industrialism to tame it a bit (I wanted Bess to have her electric iron & stove as much as she did) and on the other hand, I wanted it to be allowed to flow unfettered and free (I completely understood Tom's feelings & plight). The archival photos added another layer to the story and served as good hallmarks along the way. Perhaps I was predisposed to love this story from the start but I think it would have been a lesser telling in writing less solid and clear.

For me, this is the best sort of historical fiction. Characters who breathe, a vivid landscape, depth of emotion and struggle and even though happy endings aren't always present, the satisfaction that the story has ended as it must have. Honest, true and ever enduring. This will be one of the best I've read ever and easily one of the best of this year, I've had the pleasure of spending time with.

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