Bess Heath is 17 when her father loses his job at the powerful, successful Niagara Power Company and brings his family close to ruin. She arrives home from a nearby academy to find her mother has been forced to take on sewing projects for her wealthy former friends while Isabel — the bright, shining youngest Heath daughter — has locked herself away and stopped eating, haunted by a secret she cannot and will not name.
Unsure of how to help her family withstand their sudden fall from grace, Bess takes on the thankless task of coming back into Isabel’s confidences and mending the clothes her weary mother cannot tend to — just as Mr. Heath is drowning his sorrows daily at a nearby hotel. The only source of interest or comfort in Bess’s new life comes from daily sightings of Tom Cole, a handsome young riverman who knows more about nearby Niagara Falls than anyone else. Almost to a mythical degree.
Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Day The Falls Stood Still is an atmospheric, heart-breaking look at family, love and industrialization — weighty topics that rarely come across as dense as they sound. Told by Bess smack in the middle of World War I, the lives of so many on the Canadian side of the falls are touched by the battles happening thousands of miles away, and the war mentality hangs heavy over our narrator and her acquaintances. The novel felt thick, like soup, and once I’d fallen into it? I just couldn’t pull away until I’d finished.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths is its keen sense of place; never for a moment do you forget how close you are to Niagara, that great and terrifying waterfall on the U.S. and Canadian border. Everything that happens in the story seems to revolve around or make mention of the falls — it is, in fact, its own character. Giant. Daunting. Powerful. And as I whipped through page after page of Buchanan’s story, I could almost feel the mist on my face — a familiar and awesome sensation.
It’s hard to pin-point what I loved about this book, and harder still to describe my favorite moments without spoiling any of the content. As a reader, I never felt like I had my footing — something ominous seemed to be hovering just on the outskirts of Bess’s story, waiting to yank me out of a happy scene and push me beneath a current. Normally this would really bother me, that insecure feeling, but I have to say that it really worked for The Day The Falls Stood Still. The danger added a compelling element to the story that might not have otherwise been there!
Tom and Bess’s love story was convincing, romantic and heart-breaking. Those first love feelings were compellingly explored by the author, but it never lapsed into anything treacly. And thank goodness for that! Their love was the story’s anchor, but so much else was happening, too — including a powerful look at the loss of faith and maybe — maybe — how to get it back again. Also fantastic in the novel? The metaphysical way in which Tom relates to the river, a beast of its own; I can’t say there was actually “magic” happening here, but there isn’t any other way in which to really describe it.
I really, really loved the story, though I must confess to getting a little bored as I made my way through the final 60 pages of the novel. The pacing slowed down to a crawl just as time seemed to speed up. But don’t let that discourage you from reading this stunning story, a novel I’m happy to share with friends and coworkers. Anyone interested in the alteration of the natural world, industrialization, family dynamics and what it means to have and be a sister, parent, or friend will find something to enjoy in The Day The Falls Stood Still, and I’m eager to relive that awe-inspiring walk by the Niagara again myself.
4.5 out of 5!