I find Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Day the Falls Stood Still on the clearance rack at my favorite used book store. Its sepia toned cover shows a young woman in a long black dress, right hand on a boulder as tall as she is, standing at the base of Niagara Falls. Her head’s thrown back just slightly; her eyes are closed; there’s a hint of smile on her lips. She looks like she’s hearing the voice of the Falls and its dangerous, seductive lure.
The novel takes place between 1915 and 1923.
My sepia toned memory provides a picture from my own far distant past, a day when I went with my parents and brothers to Niagara Falls and no water pounded over the cliff. It was 1969. The water had been diverted, I think, in an effort to study the rock and find some solutions to its erosion. That, too, was a day the Falls stood still.
I buy the book, and on the hour’s ride home, I think about our visits to the Falls.
My parents loved taking us on day trips. We knew all the quirks and rambles of the area within a 50-mile radius: the pioneer cemetery with a statue of a bride in her bridal dress, a fort which preserved what my youngest brother delighted in calling ‘head-holes’, Panama Rocks, Midway Amusement Park, the state park in the Allegany Forest. Our area had been shaped, roughly, by glaciers; they left behind huge boulders tumbled snugly into their places, great for climbing. They gouged deep crevices like the gorge at Letchworth State Park.
And of course, there were the Falls. We lived about seventy miles away, and once a year or so, my father would pile us all into the Buick, and we’d take off on a day trip to Niagara.
Some days we would cross the border–no passports needed then, just a declaration of good intent. Sometimes I wished for a more dramatic crossing, for the uniformed officer who peered in our car to point at me and demand, “Now where was she born?” catching a whiff of the exotic flair that might suggest I was a native of, say, France, or California, or maybe even Ohio. Instead, we just got bored waves from the long-suffering guards, and we were across the Peace Bridge into Canada.
Canada had the Rainbow Falls, admittedly the better one, and their parks were pristine and manicured. Some days we sight-saw–driving to see a clock made completely of flowers, perhaps, or touring Madame Tussaud’s creepy wax museum. Some days we picnicked at the park by the Falls. We were misted with the drops that pounded up from the crashing waters, a cool delight on summer days. We marveled at the people who visited from all over the world and at the Babel of languages and costume.
We marveled, too, at the daring souls who rode the Maid of the Mist, or who climbed down the wooden passageway, decked out in yellow slickers, to visit The Cave of The Winds behind the Falls. We saw the Falls in winter, bookended by ice, with colored lights playing on the cataract.
The American side boasted the lesser Falls, but also Goat Island, where we could picnic in the grass and reach a hand into the rushing water. My poor mother, who, as my father put it, had ‘nerves’, was afraid of heights and terrified of water. She spent the days pleading with my brothers to back off from the edge.
With reason. There’s a dark allure to the Falls; these days there are suicide hotlines every twenty feet or so to help those who come with the intent to plunge. There is a whisper in the Falls that invites one to come and see, firsthand, the power of the water.
Cathy Marie Buchanan writes about that murmur, that lure, in The Day The Falls Stood Still. Her hero, Tom Cole the riverman, is based on a real-life Niagara Falls hero, Red Hill (1888-1942). Like Hill, Tom had an uncanny knack for knowing when the Falls had a body to give up, or when someone needed to be rescued. Tom wooed our heroine, Bess, with fresh-caught river pike, and he won her despite her family’s disapproval.
Their love story is set in the World War I era; Tom goes off to fight, and of course, the fighting changes him. When he returns, there’s a long dark time when he doesn’t hear the river speak, but finally, Bess staunchly at his side, he begins again to know its voice. He fights to save the water from greedy power companies eager to tap its power and diminish its raging torrents.
Buchanan talks about daredevils and plungers, publicity hounds, and politicians, all wrapped up in the Falls history, and she conjures up, for me, memories and murmurs. My father talked about a sister-in-law, institutionalized, who had once tried to fling herself over the Falls. “She’s homicidal,” he said, darkly.
Did he mean suicidal? I asked, and “No. Homicidal,” he said, very definitely.
“Jim,” warned my mother, and the talk turned to other topics. I knew that I would never learn the shrouded details of that troubled aunt’s story–but I thought of her each time we visited the Falls, imagining her in an asylum room with a view of the Falls, where she peered out the window and longed for freedom or release.
My youngest brother grew up and became a journalist. His first full-time job was in Niagara Falls, New York, and one of his first front page features was the story of a young man who dared the Falls in a craft that looked like a giant padded cold capsule. That dare-devil lived, with two broken legs, I believe,- and he was hustled from the hospital to the jail—Falls officials, then and now, have no patience with stunters.
Buchanan illustrates her story with vintage photos and postcards that give the reader a feel for the Falls and the era both, and these evoke (even though they’re from an era well before mine!) buried memories for me. This is a good read, although I sometimes find the characters’ problems are too easily solved: after Bess’s break from her family, it takes her knocking on only two doors before she finds both a job and a place to stay. Extraneous characters expediently die and get out of the way, and people bounce back from tragedy with remarkable aplomb. But, neatly wrapped up problems or not (and who wouldn’t want them tidily disposed of, in everyday life?), the book offers a very satisfying story.
I haven’t been back to the Falls for many years, but its crashing waters mist my memory. I’m glad I found The Day The Falls Stood Still.
All photos from The Day The Falls Stood Still, by Cathy Marie Buchanan; published by Hyperion Books, 2009.