Book review: ‘The Day The Falls Stood Still’ by Cathy Marie Buchanan

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!

ISBN: 1401340970 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from The Tome Traveller’s Blog

Where In The World Weds.: Niagara Falls

We’re heading north for this edition of Where In The World Wednesday — to Canada, in fact! Yes, friends, it’s time for us to wade into the fog aboard the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls. The Canadian side, no less, which is much prettier than the American side. Just sayin’.

I visited Niagara with my family in July 2004 — like our trademark blue rain slickers? — and was totally blown away by how big and scary it was. Seeing it in photos does nothing to demonstrate just how massive this waterfall is — so huge and kicking up so much mist that it’s often partially obscured. Like so many visitors before us, we took the tiny boat out and stood beneath the falls, looking up at the rushing water pouring toward us. I put up my hood and slung an arm around my sister. It was her sixteenth birthday.

The above photo doesn’t even begin to do justice to just how tiny and fragile you feel standing by something like the Niagara — something that’s been there so long, it’s hard to process what changes it has seen. Through what it has existed. The subject of countless books and novels, the falls is a thing of fear and majesty. And while reading Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Day The Falls Stood Still? I couldn’t help but remember the moment I stood by the falls with my family, taken aback by the sheer force of it.

When my mom and dad planned our trip to Buffalo, New York and Toronto, Ontario, Niagara Falls was — to me — just a stop on our way back to the U.S. I didn’t imagine we would have much to do there, just staring at a giant waterfall. How interesting could that be? Especially in the heat? But we stayed overnight in the small town and had a wonderful time. I was delighted by the fact that in Canada, nineteen — an age I’d just turned days before — allowed me to both gamble and drink. I didn’t really indulge in either, but the very fact that I could was intoxicating. I was growing up.

That was an important summer for me — the summer after I met M., fell in love for the first time and then visited his hometown. But without him. Back then, Buffalo was just the place M. grew up . . . it hadn’t yet become my arch-nemesis, the place that would eventually lure him away. That was before I learned not even I was strong enough to battle Buffalo — and I’m glad I didn’t know. I have these memories — crystal, perfect — before I knew more about myself. And more about heartbreak. Looking at these photos now, that’s what strikes me: what I had yet to know.

And I’m glad I read The Day The Falls Stood Still with an on-pitch perception of what those falls can mean — for me and the countless other people who visit each year. And like riverman Tom Cole, one of Buchanan’s principle characters, I’ll never doubt the power of the river.