The Day the Falls Stood Still
by Cathy Marie Buchanan
“We all matter so very little, not at all after a generation or two. And it is the same for all mankind; not even the greatest of men amount to anything that will survive the forward march of time.” (pg. 215)
With The Day the Falls Stood Still, author Cathy Marie Buchanan gives her reader a sweeping, majestical love story set amid the grandeur and mystery of Niagara Falls. As her first novel, this is an incredibly impressive debut for so many reasons. The characters are so well developed, the history is fascinating and supplemented with fictitious newspaper accounts and vintage photos, the writing is poetic and lyrical, the details (especially of the clothing) are intricately woven, and the descriptions of the riverbed show that Buchanan knows of what she speaks.
The Day the Falls Stood Still spans nearly a decade in the life of narrator Bess Heath, who at the novel’s beginning in 1915 is finishing her junior year at a prestigious boarding school in the same Niagara Falls area community where her well-off family lives. Within the first few pages, however, Bess’ life changes dramatically: her father has lost his well-paying job and has become an alcoholic; her beloved sister Isabel is suffering from what we now know is depression while hiding other secrets; and her mother is doing her best to hold the family together by working as a seamstress.
In the midst of this turmoil, and while mourning the life she had, Bess meets local fisherman Tom Cole. Predictably, the two fall in love, only to be met by reactions of scorn and disapproval by everyone from the local busybodies to Bess’ family and friends.
When Bess receives a marriage proposal from wealthy Edward Atwell, the brother of her best friend Kit, that sets into motion a theme that recurs throughout The Day the Falls Stood Still. The novel explores the question of familial obligation and loyalty, of friendship, of following one’s heart versus doing what is expected or demanded, of legacies inherited from our ancestors and the legacy we’re leaving for generations to follow.
These are themes that have been explored in countless stories, but I believe one of the qualities of a great writer is the ability to show a reader these themes in a way that seems brand new, to keep one engrossed in the story and to not want to put the book down. Cathy Marie Buchanan does this beautifully in The Day the Falls Stood Still, and the fact that this is her first novel makes that feat even more impressive.
This is a love story, to be sure, but it is also a story imbued with the spiritual and mystical qualities that infuse our lives. For Bess and especially Tom, the river and the falls hold a power over them that isn’t easily explained, as Bess relates:
“Then he speaks almost shyly, as though he is not sure I want to hear: ‘There’s something more, too. There are moments, usually on the river. It’s nothing I know how to explain.’
I watch him, filling with wonder. I have heard Father argue that intuition is entirely rational. There is no mystery, no magic, nothing astonishing as far as he is concerned. A woman knows her child is ill, even before laying her palm on his forehead, only because he slept late and called out in the night and ate poorly the evening before. It does not matter one iota that she cannot articulate the clues. Father would say, ‘We do not always know what we know.’
But I am not so quick to rule out mystery and magic. I like the astonishing and do not doubt that it exists. What is God, after all, if not mystery and magic, and astonishing? I have little inclination to scoff at Tom’s bit of mystery. From my window seat at the academy, I saw prayers in the rising mist.” (pg. 89)
My heart was swept away in the love story of Bess and Tom, one that spans the entire novel and is still as strong as strong toward the novel’s end as it is in the beginning.
“‘You were the reason I got up in the morning.’
‘You’re still the reason I do.’
There are moments when it feels like my heart is not large enough to hold what I feel. Love wells in my eyes and I do not blink it away. I let it roll onto my cheeks.
He is a faded silhouette against his glittering river. Still, I can see the sheen that has come to his eyes.” (pg. 276)
Finally, let me also say that this novel represents all that I love about book bloggers. Quite honestly, on the surface this might not have been a book that I would have chosen on my own. It’s historical fiction, a genre I usually shy away from because it has always seemed intimidating to me (I know, doesn’t that sound ridiculous?) but which I am starting to acquire a deeper appreciation for. Instead, I happened to see this on the library’s New Books shelf and remembered seeing a positive review about it on a book blog (apologies for not remembering which one, although it might have been Darlene’s from Peeking Between the Pages), so I picked it up.
And was quickly, gladly, swept away in the current of a great read.
Cathy Marie Buchanan’s website is here.
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copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo’s Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.