Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan, reviewed by Charlene Jones

Young Bess Heath, protagonist of Cathy Marie Buchanan’s remarkable novel The Day the Falls Stood Still, abruptly emerges from a childhood of easy wealth to glimpse her life on the edge of a roaring whirlpool. 

Her father has lost his prestigious job at the Niagara Power Company and has taken to liberal libations at the local. Her mother has fallen in station from hostess with servants to mere seamstress for the upper crust society matrons she used to host and now shoulders the burdens but begins to melt down.

Her older sister Isabel’s fiancĂ© has broken off their engagement as she is no longer his social equal, and Isabel now hides in her room, refusing to eat. Meanwhile drums of the First World War sound softly in the distance. These changes provoke deep anxiety in Bess even as she tries to cope with having been thrust out of the comfort of her private school into a world where work is necessary.       

The force of nature eclipses Bess’ personal difficulties and she focuses on the preoccupation of all young women: she falls in love. Here, too, conflicts thunder with the force of the Niagara Falls, the story’s setting. One choice of suitor leads her entire family away from the brink of disaster to the safe ground of social and economic respectability; the other choice fulfills Bess’s own heart, but promises little else.

Handsome Tom Cole, Bess’ heart love is the grandson of the legendary Fergus Cole, famed for his knowledge of the falls and for rescuing people from the river's fury. Tom initially appears in Bess’ life as a fisherman. Like other celebrated fishers, he lives in a firm belief of a Superior Power, and visions a world in which the river, his river, remains free.

Cathy Marie Buchanan will be 
our guest speaker Sept 19
in Mississauga. 
Details here.
This is 1915, when the recent discovery of electricity and its uses powered the thoughts and hungers of many men in many companies, among them those poised at the edge of Niagara Falls. Tom Cole is only too aware of how development will follow greed to harness the River’s great falls.

The subplot involving Beth’s beloved sister Isabel, whose struggle with issues of conformity, female sexual freedom and love do not end well, supports the themes of love, death, and faith in Beth's own life. For the trajectory of her life’s ordeals throw Bess into yet another layer of impenetrable confusion: how to maintain her fledgling faith in God, when everything about her threatens to capsize? 

The story of a young woman’s coming to maturity through trials of love, kinship, economic deprivation and a struggle with faith rings through classics such as George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Like those other great writers, Buchanan includes the natural world, Niagara Falls, as a background and   symbol for her protagonist’s personal crisis.

The writing in this book is superb. The detailed attention to nonfiction information, including history of the Niagara Power Company, the myths involving some of the daredevils and river men who have populated Niagara Falls, Buchanan’s home town, her ease in describing the beautiful, treacherous power of the falls and the escarpment in different seasons, her clarity about the effects of World War One on the lives of those who served and those who remained behind, even her superior breadth of knowledge about the baroque craft of sewing flows seamlessly throughout the novel, blending fiction and nonfiction in a single whole.

If you like an engaging love story pitched against social, national and familial struggle, if you care for historic facts rendered with sensitivity, if you enjoy reading fictional lives caught up in a whirlpool of forces familial, social, religious, and natural, you will love Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Day the Falls Stood Still.

It’s a great read, a wonderful book, clearly a Canadian classic.

Note: I’m hosting an evening with Cathy Marie Buchanan on September 19. Everyone’s invited to come here Cathy speak about her writing process and her journey as an author. Details here–Brian

Quick Brown Fox welcomes book reviews and other book related pieces. Quick Brown Fox also welcomes reviews of plays, movies, restaurants and anything else that catches your fancy. Right now, I’d especially love a review of The Search Angel by Tish Coshen. Email your review to me at

Charlene Jone's fiction has most recently appeared in Commuterlit. Charlene also writes regularly for the Musselman's Lake Residents' Association website and for her radio programOff the Top with Whistle Radio, 102.7 fm (every second Tuesday from 3:00 to 3:30 p.m.) In addition Charlene is the Musselman's Lake Correspondent for the Stouffville Free Press. She has a nonfiction work, Medicine Buddha/Medicine Mind in front of the publisher Snow Lion in Boston. You can see Charlene perform her poetry and prose at Linda Stitt's inimitable monthly salon at Portobello Restaurant and Bar in Toronto. Charlene blogs at

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Milton, Oakville, Burlington, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Dundas, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Orangeville, Newmarket, Barrie, Orillia, Bracebridge, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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