Bess Heath is just seventeen years old at the time her world irrevocably changes. She leaves the prestigious Loretto Academy at the end of her junior year knowing that she will never return, and in a manner in which she has not been accustomed in her short life. Gone is the fancy car with her proud father leaning against it in greeting, waiting to whisk her away for summer holidays. Instead there is only her mother to sit in on her last school concert, and to help her lug her heavy trunk to the trolley which they will now have to take home.
Bess is ill prepared to face the reduced circumstances and changed personalities of her family. Though she has been warned by a friend that her father has lost his job at the Niagara Power Company, she doesn’t know that her mother has taken in sewing of the rich friends who were once their social equals, that her once elegant father now dons a rough worker’s coat and then spends the day and most of the night drinking, shunned by his former colleagues. Her once vivavacious sister, Isabel, has become a shell of her former self, haunted by secrets that Bess can’t imagine. As Bess begins the process of adjusting to her new circumstances, the one bright spot in her life is Tom Cole, a working class man whom she meets by chance on the trolley home from Loretto. Tom and Bess carefully work out a way to start seeing each other, though her family does not approve. Will she do what is right for them or what is best for her?
If I had to chose one word to describe this book it would be intricatelywovenandmultifaceted. (What do you mean that’s not a word? It’s in my dictionary just like that!) There was so much going on and so many layers. The Day The Falls Stood Still is historical fiction at it’s best- when you are just so encased within the fabric of the story, the characters and the history that you are getting an education, entertainment and a little therapy all at once. Bess, Tom, Isabel and the rest of the characters in this novel face drastic changes in their society due to their own choices, but also external forces like the ongoing war and the resulting privations which all but the wealthy must endure. Every decision that they make is also heightened by the immediacy of death,easily accessible in the raging waters of Niagara Falls, whether or not death is being actively sought. People are found floating in the river having given themselves over to the Falls, mothers accidentally drop their babies into the water, ice bridges break up and float off with people trapped on them, there are avalanches and rock slides, and adventurers trying to shoot the rapids in barrels. Tom is deeply concerned with the fact that Niagara herself is facing death at the hands of corporations bent on siphoning off the water to create electricity.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the decisions that I made when I was Bess’s age, and I have to say that while I might have had the basic framework for who I would become, a lot was missing. I guess the way that we fill in that framework is to have life experiences, make mistakes, change or become more of and reinforce who we are, but it was just fascinating to look at the choices from the remove of a century, and against the back drop of a different society in a place as dramatic as Niagara Falls. I worried for Bess, and I wasn’t sure that she was making the right decisions, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted the right things for her, but loved thinking about it all while reading. The characters and their situations, and not just Bess, were so balanced and well thought out that it was a joy to read and the writing is just beautiful. Cathy Marie Buchanan seems to effortlessly render a society that is changing faster than people can keep up.
Another element that I enjoyed here were the quiet explorations of faith and nature. As the novel stats out Bess is someone who has always felt the presences of something bigger than herself, and has always been on the verge of confirming that belief when circumstances halt her burgeoning faith and cause her to question its existence and her tendency to believe. Tom has deep faith in Niagara and the gifts of the river, but also in the spirit of the grandfather that taught him all that he knows. Faith and beliefs can change over the course of a lifetime and that portrayal here is beautifully related as were the relationships between mother and daughter, husband and wife, and the bonds between friends. This was a rich and rewarding reading experience and I savored every word.