Cathy Marie Buchanan’s first novel has the wistful tone of a love letter, addressed to a place few people alive today ever knew: Niagara Falls in the years before it became a tacky tourist destination, when it was still the domain of rivermen, daredevils, and lovers.
The story begins in 1915, as 17-year-old Bess Heath’s life of privilege is thrown into disarray. After her father loses his job at the Niagara Power Company, Bess returns home to discover him ensconced at the local hotel bar. She also finds her heartbroken sister and her mother, who is scrabbling together an income as a dressmaker. The family’s hope is restored when a wealthy suitor proposes to Bess. But when a mysterious stranger captures Bess’s heart and the falls claim the life of her sister, love and grief make the marriage of convenience impossible.
At the centre of the tale is Bess’s battle for faith and hope in a world that God seems to have abandoned – a world in which the First World War immerses young men in unfathomable horror and landscapes like Niagara Falls are ravaged in the service of boundless progress. Buchanan brings the era to vivid life, and specifics of Bess’s sewing and cooking give the story a gorgeous tactility.
Although rich in detail, the story is also overwrought and melodramatic, and written in a simple, episodic style that fails to fully mine its emotional content. Buchanan’s characters suffer spiritual angst, fight in wars, and grieve for tragic losses, yet rarely do they display a complexity equal to that of their storylines.
Nevertheless, this first novel abounds in romance and charm. Buchanan, a Niagara Falls native, was raised on the region’s lore, and she conveys its beauty and terror with deep understanding. Local legends pervade the story, lending it a nostalgic, otherworldly quality. Bess’s great love, Tom Cole, is styled after real-life riverman Red Hill, a hero of the falls with the uncanny ability to predict the ways of the water.
Like a stuntman at the edge of the falls, this book can’t resist a dramatic plunge: it’s overly theatrical, certainly, but also entertaining.