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 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.