The Johnstown Girls
by Kathleen George

U. of Pittsburgh Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-822-94431-7.
Reviewed by Judy Alter
Posted on 04/15/2014
Review of the Month, April 2014

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Mainstream

The story of the Johnstown (Pennvylvania) 1889 flood is well known—2,029 people were killed when the damn on a mountain lake gave way after days of heavy rain. On its way down the valley the water picked up debris: animals, trees, railroad cars, and, yes people. Attempts were made to warn Johnstown by telegraph but the operators had heard so many false alarms they did not post the messages. The flood was the greatest natural disaster in the history of the nation, although soon surpassed by the Galveston hurricane of 1900.

Since the story of the Great Flood has been told and retold, what could Kathleen George do in her novel to make it fresh material? She begins her story not with the flood, as I anticipated, but in 1989 when a newspaper reporter, Ben, travels from Pittsburgh to Johnstown to interview the last living survivor of the flood. With him is his girlfriend, Nina, a cub reporter at the same paper, who was born and raised in Johnstown. (Note that Ben is a married father of two). Effectively, George frames the story of the flood within a modern-day love story.

Ben quickly becomes a secondary figure in the book. As the title implies, this is a novel about women, strong women who are survivors. At 103 Ellen Emerson lives alone, though she has a daytime companion. She is witty, charming, and elegant, insisting on serving lunch at a beautifully set table with food carefully prepared by Ruth, the companion. Ellen is a deeply thoughtful person, a teacher for many years, mother to an adopted child to whom she is unfortunately not close. At one point, she settles down to reread Anna Karenina and thinks how all the pain in life is worth it if you can be a Tolstoy or Austen and use it for others. One senses that Ellen did use her pain for the sake or others—she just never wrote the book.

Ellen and her twin sister, Mary, floated on a mattress for much of the flood, and she remembers her older cousin, a boy, pushing her father off the mattress and saving himself by climbing in a upper-story window, abandoning the girls who were eventually separated. Memories of the flood haunt Ellen all her life, but as the story gradually emerges we see what a rich and fully lived life hers has been. Throughout her long life she has clung to the belief that her twin is still alive.

While Ben researches and writes the scientific facts of the flood, why the dam failed, and how fast the flood moved, Nina is engaged by the emotional story and almost obsessed with finding Ellen's sister. But she operates within the framework of her relationship to Ben—his wife is demanding reconciliation. First they go to counseling, though Ben is reluctant; then Ben ends up in an arrangement whereby he spends one week with his family, one with Nina. You can almost hear the relationship crumbling, even as Nina's fascination with Ellen flourishes and even her relationship with her own mother, also a Johnstown girl, grows deeper.

Another character is introduced and the omniscient narrator begins to follow the story of Anna, living in a nursing home. It's no spoiler to say that early on the reader suspects that Anna is the sister Ellen has missed all those years. Anna's life story, gradually revealed, is as rich and varied as Emma's, for both sisters flaunted the conventions of the day in their personal lives. The suspense here is whether or not the two will be united in time. Anna contracts pneumonia, and the nursing home staff presumes she's gone. But she rallies.

Meanwhile the separate stories of Ellen, Nina, and the search for Ellen's sister continue. At Orthodox Easter Sunday, Nina takes Ben to Johnstown to meet her mother formally, and he asks, "How did you define that J-town thing again?" "Oh, you know," she says, "nervous, high strung, alert, but also very patient. Describes every woman I ever knew there. It must be the water."

Water is a strong theme throughout the book—both Ellen and Anna always resist swimming—and you're very aware that water shaped the lives of these people, even that of Nina who survived two lesser floods but grew up on tales of the Great Flood. But Nina is only partly right about the high-strung women of Johnstown. Yes, they are alert and nervous because of the history of their town. But they are strong survivors, worth reading about.

After a slow start (the contemporary love story seems a tale oft-told), the pace picks up. I much preferred the historical sections—the lives of Ellen and Anna—to the tarnished affair between Ben and Nina. But Nina ends up taking the same bold step that Ellen did. All in all, it's an absorbing read, history from a new perspective.

Kathleen George is a professor of theater arts and creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of seven mysteries, a collection of short stories, and several books on theater. She was born in Johnstown. Visit her website.

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