The Day the Falls Stood Still
Cathy Marie Buchanan, 2009
1915. The dawn of the hydroelectric power era in Niagara Falls. Seventeen-year-old Bess Heath has led a sheltered existence as the youngest daughter of the director of the Niagara Power Company. After graduation day at her boarding school, she is impatient to return to her picturesque family home near Niagara Falls.
But when she arrives, nothing is as she had left it. Her father has lost his job at the power company, her mother is reduced to taking in sewing from the society ladies she once entertained, and Isabel, her vivacious older sister, is a shadow of her former self. She has shut herself in her bedroom, barely eating—and harboring a secret.
The night of her return, Bess meets Tom Cole by chance on a trolley platform. She finds herself inexplicably drawn to him—against her family's strong objections. He is not from their world. Rough-hewn and fearless, he lives off what the river provides, and he has an uncanny ability to predict the whims of the falls. river rescues render him a local hero and cast him as a threat to the power companies who seek to harness the power of the falls for themselves.
As the paths of Bess and Tom become entwined, Bess must make a painful choice between what she wants and what is best for her family and her future. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—May 23, 1963
• Where—Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
• Education—B.S., and M.B.A., University of Western Ontario
• Currently—lives in Toronto, Ontario
Cathy Marie Buchanan is the author of The Painted Girls and The Day the Falls Stood Still. Published January 2013, The Painted Girls has received enthusiastic reviews (Kirkus, The Globe and Mai, The Washington Post, People, Entertainment Weekly, and USA Today) and has garnered favourable notices in Vanity Fair, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, Chicago Tribune, Costco Connection and Chatelaine. Also an IndieNext pick, The Painted Girls debuted on the New York Times bestsellers list and is a #1 national bestseller in Canada.The Day the Falls Stood Still, her debut novel, was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection, and an IndieNext pick.
Born and bred in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the setting of The Day the Falls Stood Still, Buchanan grew up "awash in the lore of William 'Red' Hill, Niagara’s most famous riverman," as she explains in the Author's Note that concludes her book. Like her character Tom Cole and his grandfather Fergus before him, the historical Red Hill could read the river with preternatural apprehension, anticipating shifts in the weather and sensing when people would be trapped by winds and water. In all, Hill saved 29 people and countless animals from drowning. The Day the Falls Stood Still was inspired by two of Hill's heroic rescues, which Buchanan thrillingly recreates.
The author’s fascination with the lore and legends of the falls is complemented by her interest in the economic and industrial forces at work in the region at the dawn of the hydroelectric era. Also prevalent is Buchanan's meticulous research into the apparel, furnishings, and customs of the social milieu Bess Heath is forced—by circumstance and for love—to leave behind.
A recipient of grants from both the Toronto and the Ontario Arts Councils, Cathy Marie Buchanan is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. She has published fiction in the Antigonish Review, Dalhousie Review, New Quarterly, Quarry, and Descant. She currently lives in Toronto with her husband and three sons.
The Day the Falls Stood Still—is Buchanan's first novel. Her second, The Painted Sisters, was issued in 2013. Another work of historical fiction, it tells the story of the girl behind the famous Edgar Degas sculpture "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen." (From the publisher and Wikipedia.)
Few first novels exhibit the mastery, maturity, and majesty of Buchanan’s riveting fictional debut, a heart-wrenching, soul-racking, spellbinding tale interwoven with guts, anguish, and glory guaranteed to remain in readers’ minds.
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
[The Day the Falls Stood Still] stands on its own elegant prose and the vibrant voice of its narrator.
Set against the backdrop of WWI and Niagara Falls, this debut tells the story of young Bess Heath and her struggle to navigate a quickly modernizing world. A child of privilege, Bess sees her fortunes change when her father loses his job. Cast into poverty, her family disgraced, Bess tries to hold things together while her sister slips into depression, her father drinks and her mother withdraws. After another tragedy strikes, Bess finds comfort in the love of Tom Cole, a river man with a mysterious connection to the falls. Overcoming the deep privation of the war and their own limited means, the two begin building a life together and renew their commitment to each other and their family. Based loosely on the history of Niagara river man William “Red” Hill, the book incorporates mock newspaper articles with limited success, but does integrate some detailed depictions of domestic life and fascinating natural history into an otherwise uneventful romance.
Buchanan's first novel illuminates the beginnings of hydroelectric power in Canada during World War I. Fortunes are made and lost on electricity supplied by Niagara Falls, and Bess's family suffers particularly—her father loses his job at the local electric powerhouse, and her sister Isabel loses both her rich fiancé and her life, drowning in the river. Bess and her mother turn to tailoring to make ends meet, and Bess continues with her work when her naturalist husband, Tom, goes off to fight. Returning from the war, Tom goes to work for the electric company to support the family, although he deplores the effect of the generators on the Niagara River. In the end, this conflict between the natural world and progress leads to tragedy. Verdict: Historical fiction readers will appreciate the excellent period detail, especially the depiction of the era's social mores, and the romance between Bess and Tom is also a high point. —Amy Ford, St. Mary's Cty. Lib., Lexington Park, MD
First novel offers a romantic take on Niagara Falls life in the early 20th century, complete with old photographs to buttress the nostalgic mood. In 1915, Bess Heath's father is fired as director of the Niagara Power Company and the family finances crumble. Her mother supports the family with dressmaking. Bess must leave her private school. Worst of all, Bess's sister Isabel is dumped by her fiance and sinks into a serious depression. Financial salvation seems at hand when Edward, the dull brother of Bess's best friend, comes courting. Isabel flirts outrageously, but Edward proposes to Bess. Under parental pressure she accepts, although she has already begun a shy romance with Tom. He is deemed inappropriate not only because he's working-class but because of the nature of his work; he's a river man who retrieves "floaters"-drowned bodies. Shortly before Bess's wedding, Isabel drowns herself. When Tom finds the body, he helps Bess hide Isabel's pregnancy. Propelled by grief and flaunting convention, Bess breaks off with Edward to marry Tom, who shortly thereafter goes off to World War I. These early scenes are the novel's most engrossing. Once Tom returns the book moves more quickly and shallowly. Tom recovers from his traumatic war experience by performing acts of bravery at the Falls. Although he takes a job at the Hydro-Electric Power Commission to support their growing family, he doesn't believe the progress electricity offers is worth the price to the environment and eventually quits to become an activist. Meanwhile, Bess and Tom's little boy Jesse is as drawn to the river as Tom. The spiritual connection Tom, Jesse and Bess feel to the river takes on mystical dimensions. After tragedy strikes, the uplifting ending has a decidedly religious tinge. Buchanan's prose is elegant, but sentimentality limits her achievement.
1. The novel is set against the backdrop of Niagara Falls. Is it accurate to say that this natural wonder is a character in the novel? Why or why not?
2. In early-20th-century Ontario, distinctions in social strata created insurmountable boundaries between different groups. Yet Bess, her mother, and several other characters act against the conventions of their time. What compelled them? Would they face the same challenges today?
3. Edward's proposal presents both a challenge and an opportunity to Bess and her family. What did you think of her decision? What would you have done in similar circumstances?
4. The title of the book invokes a rescue made by Fergus Cole, Tom's grandfather, shortly after he arrived at Niagara Falls. Did you find Buchanan's decision to post newspaper clippings of Fergus's heroism effective? Was the force of his legend felt throughout the novel?
5. Although Bess and her family are Methodists, she and her sister attend a Catholic school for girls. What role does religion or belief play in the book? As the novel unfolds, how does Bess evolve spiritually?
6. A secondary theme in the novel pits the idea of conserving natural resources against the quest to harness them for economic and industrial development. Informed by her father's work experience at the power company and by Tom's allegiance to the river, Bess begins to understand both sides of the argument. Did her vote on the ballot measure surprise you?
7. Why is Tom able to predict the whims of the Niagara River? What would Bess say about his mysterious abilities? Does her explanation change over the course of the book?
8. Bess is angry with Tom after the ice bridge rescue, and lashes out at him after the scow rescue. Is her anger warranted? Why or why not?
9. Before abandoning the rope tethered to Jesse and plunging into the waters, Tom says, "Believe in me, Bess." What does he mean by this? Does he know how the events of the day will unfold?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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