The Day the Falls Stood Still
by Cathy Marie Buchanan


Hyperion/Voice, 2009. ISBN 978-1-401-34097-1.
Reviewed by Sharon Wildwind
Posted on 01/03/2010

Fiction: Historical

I love authors who successfully break the rules. There probably isn't really any rule against writing in first person, present tense, but so many times that technique sets my teeth on edge. Not so in this book. That point-of-view choice set me firmly inside Elizabeth Heath's head and world. For example,

"When I next glance at the beadwork, I see each askew bead has been put right. Closer examination makes plain the extent of the rework. Each knot was severed and each bead slid from the thread. Only then, and with great precision, had Mother poked her needle through the organza, wrong side to right, and strung a bead onto the thread. Only then had she poked her needle back through the organza and secured the thread with a knot. She had worked half the night to make sure I knew she would stand for no nonsense from me."

Bess is seventeen; a student at a Catholic girl's school, though her family isn't Catholic; and the daughter of a manager at the Niagara Power Company, which in 1915 Niagara Falls, Ontario, is a prestigious position. She walks into her end-of-year commencement ceremonies sure of herself, and walks out with her future shattered.

Her father has been let go from his job.

In the community's rigid social structure, her father losing his job immediately changes the family's social status. Bess's mother becomes a dressmaker to support her family. Bess's sister is deeply depressed. Bess meets Tom Cole, a young riverman whose life, like that of his famous riverman grandfather, is inextricably tied to the Niagara River. When Tom pulls a body out of the water, he and Bess conspire to keep secret that the person committed suicide.

This is a intriguing story of a young woman's escape from an artificial, conventional, planned future into a life that has meaning.

In the background, there are always the river and the falls. This is not the Niagara Falls of honeymoon suites, tourists, and embroidered silk pillows. The Falls' intrusion on Bess's life ranges from comic—trying to come up with new recipes for the fish Tom brings her—to life-threatening. People do stupid things around a river and it is often up to Tom to save them if he can, and recover their bodies if he can't. Even the river is changing. Companies like Niagara Power claim the water for electrical production, and each new power plant lessens the river. There is an ecological message here, but it isn't an in-your-face one.

Many historical novels miss the mark by not getting inside the different way people thought in the time period represented. This book hits the mark. I came away with a strong feeling that I knew what Bess's life would have been like between 1915 and 1923. A good read all around.


Cathy Marie Buchanan's stories have appeared in several of Canada's most respected literary journals. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from the University of Western Ontario. She has been awarded grants by both the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she grew up amid the awe-inspiring scenery of the Niagara River and awash in the local lore. She now resides in Toronto. To learn more about Buchanan and her work, go to her web site.

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