The Day the Falls Stood Still
by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Hyperion. 301 pp. $24.99
Reviewed By Jared C. Clark
The Days the Falls Stood Still reads like a work of historical chick lit set in a far-removed time. The main character and narrator, Bess, first meets us as a 17-year-old girl, torn between a vagrant love interest and the best interests of her family. But soon Cathy Marie Buchanan leaves these childish notions behind, transforming her novel into a compelling narrative that grapples with friendships forgotten, death, war, and a more mature, complicated notion of love and security.
"Standing there at the brink of the falls, I asked for a young man to be spared, a young man for me," thinks the early Bess. But before long, she's forced to face adulthood and becomes a character who later ruminates intelligently on more significant matters, thinking "it is then it seems that her life was inconsequential, that mine may be as well and everyone else's too. We all matter so little, not at all after a generation or two."
Buchanan's narrative stays with Bess, who finds unlikely love with the river man Tom Cole the same day her family's financial ruin forces her early departure from boarding school. Set against the backdrop of WWI in a rapidly changing Niagara Falls, Canada, Bess' narration comes across as serious and contemplative: she's a person trying to make sense of a world that becomes more chaotic with every passing day. Tom offers her salvation, but this salvation comes at a cost: the relationship will doom what little social standing Bess and her family have left.
Bess' narration paints an exceptional portrait of Niagara Falls between 1915 and 1923, providing intricate details of the town, people, and styles of the time. Buchanan supplements this narration with photographs, letters, and fabricated news clippings that immerse the reader in an era when daredevils shot the rapids above the falls, when power companies threatened the life of the river itself, and when thousands of Canadian men--including Bess' Tom--shipped out to fight a war across the Atlantic.
While Tom survives the war, everything threatens the happiness that he and Bess work so hard to achieve. The novel depicts this struggle without becoming sappy or melodramatic, and while these struggles occur a century before the present day, they remain reminiscent of more recent times with images of a young man haunted by war, of a woman who dreams of a house with "closets, those modern tiny rooms for housing linens and clothing and other bits best kept tucked away…an up-to-date bathroom," even at the risk of depleting her new family's savings.
And this is what makes The Day the Falls Stood Still so compelling--it provides a portrait of the past that won't alienate modern readers, and it keeps the pages turning and turning all the way to the novel's masterfully-constructed conclusion.