“The day the falls stood still” was in 1848. This book’s set during and just after the First World War, but it contains messages that are valid for any time, about the power of nature, and about what those powers can do for us but how dangerous harnessing them can be.
“The falls” in question are Niagara Falls, and the book’s set at a time at which debates were raging over using the water there to generate hydro-electric power. It was a valuable source of power which could bring great benefit to the people of Ontario, as well as providing local employment; but diverting the water meant vastly reducing the flow of the falls, damaging from both an aesthetic effect and from the point of view of the tourist industry and, dangerously, risking there not being enough water to carry through the ice floes which formed in winter, blocking up the river and causing dangerous surges of water when the floes melted. Cathy Marie Buchanan presents both points of view, through different characters. And, at the same time, “daredevils” were trying to “shoot” the rapids in wooden barrels, or to swim across them: I’d half-forgotten that that was how Matthew Webb died (in 1883).
The story’s told through the lives of a young couple, the daughter of a wealthy family who’d lost their money and position and a “riverman” who opposed interfering with the natural flow of the Falls and became known for rescuing people from them. Sadly, there isn’t a happy ending. Nor is there a happy beginning, really – we’re reminded via another character that nature’s great waterfalls, with all their beauty, (and you could equally say great canyons) tend to be suicide spots.
My copy’s got “A wonderful love story” emblazoned across the front, which I think’s a shame because it makes it sound a bit Mills and Boon-ish, whereas it’s so much more than that. It’s about a relationship, but it’s also about the relationship between humans and nature, how fragile that can be and how careful we need to be with it. Those of us who grew up in the 1980s will know all about greenhouse gases and the hole in the ozone layer and acid rain and so on, but that sort of thing isn’t talked about much now. And how often do we hear about someone having to be rescued from a mountain in bad weather, or a lake that was too dangerous to swim in, because there isn’t enough respect for nature? We even get stories about people ignoring warning signs so that they can take a daring-looking selfie! Places like Niagara Falls give us so much, and we need to remember that they aren’t to be messed with. A very thought-provoking book – and it does that in a way that’s never preachy and always entertaining. Recommended.