The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

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The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Bess meets Tom Cole and chooses hard work with a heroic riverman over an easy life with a respectable suitor. Starring Niagara Falls, this atmospheric and compelling historical romance is told with conviction.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 307 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Hutchinson
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0091925963

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I imagined this title as a 'Gone With the Wind' sort of novel, a saga-esque historical romance, with a characterful heroine and page-turning story line that necessitates reading late into the night. Well, I wasn't disappointed in this paperback edition of the hardback, already a best-seller in the U.S.

What I admire most about The Day the Falls Stood Still is its atmosphere. Cathy Marie Buchanan was brought up in the Canadian town of Niagara Falls, and there is a wealth of detail about the area which gives this first book of hers an immediate authenticity. Bess leaves Loretto Academy in 1915 to return home, her father sacked from his directorship of the local power company. Fascinating photographs show the Academy peopled with students of the era, and the imposing house, Glenview, which still exists today. Prominent landmarks such as the Lower Steel Arch Bridge become props – it is used to shadow Bess and Tom's first kiss and I wondered if it was the town's regular meeting place for lovers.

Actually, I wish I'd visited the author's website ( before getting stuck into the story, as it has a useful interactive map, great for orientating those of us who don't know the area.

The novel commemorates the river that existed in the early twentieth century, its ecology, folklore and dangerous lure to residents and visitors alike. Downstream from the main Falls is a hazardous area of rapids and whirlpool, and the gorge and glen dominate the story. Using every sense, the author evokes the torrent roaring through them as a continual background to the town's doings. Real photographs of folk heroes like Blondin and Annie Taylor and fictional newspaper snippets add tremendously to the sense of atmosphere.

We return to the whirlpool throughout the story. A deadly appendix to the main river flow, it sucks in victims and spews them out randomly, or never, as a symbol for technological progress, or perhaps of life itself. The intuition of Tom Cole, the local riverman, enables him to retrieve (alive or dead) the unwary come to beat mighty Niagara. There was a real Tom Cole, in the sense that some of the dramatic adventures described in the story happened to William 'Red' Hill, but after that reality and fiction diverge.

During the early part of the twentieth century, using the river to harness water power for electricity production was bitterly contested. At one end the public wanted electricity for their houses and shareholders were greedy for profit from the new technology. At the other, conservationists like Tom feared that harnessing its power would destroy the great falls for ever. Just as the engineering works must have dominated local employment and politics at the time, so water permeates through every layer of this story in the decisions and actions of the characters.

Despite the timely theme of harnessing water power, most of the book is romantic fiction. It's fairly obvious that Bess and Tom are destined for each other from their first meeting on a trolley bus, when Tom carries her school trunk. Bess is not of the same class as Tom, and her mother objects to their meetings. She wants a connection that will ensure Bess regains a comfortable position in society. I romped through the early chapters, really enjoying the strong storyline around Bess and her pining sister, Isabel. Bess is a strong woman in all respects, willing to work and adaptable. Tom is handsome, brave, knowledgeable, dependable, prone to depression and with eyes as green as Niagara riverwater.

It is also fairly obvious from the outset that loss will be involved. In the middle section I seemed to be skating through a romantic saga towards the inevitable tragedy, rather than enjoying the story as it unfolded. I think this was because some minor characters were just a bit too helpful to Bess, a bit too superficial to stand the believability test. Fortunately the narrative picked up in the final section so that I was right there beside her again. It came as a bit of a surprise, though, to find out that the book was really about the flickering sliver of light.

I loved learning about Niagara Falls in the early part of the twentieth century and would like to thank Hutchinson for sending this book. I'm sure many other British women will enjoy Cathy Marie Buchanan's debut novel.

If you enjoy this period in history, I recommend two other stunning debut novels: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber (set in the Badlands of South Dakota) and The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles (set in Brazil).

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