Friday, 14 October 2011

The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

About the Book

Steeped in the intriguing history of Niagara Falls, this is
 an epic love story as rich, spellbinding and majestic as
 the falls themselves.

1915. The dawn of the hydroelectric power era in Niagara Falls.Bess Heath has led a sheltered existence as the youngest daughter of the director of the Niagara Power Company.

After graduation day at her boarding school, she is impatient to return to her picturesque family home near the falls. But when she arrives, nothing is as she left it. Her father has lost his job at the power company, her mother is reduced to taking in sewing from society ladies she once entertained, and, Isabel, Bess' vivacious older sister, is a shadow of her former self. She has shut herself in her bedroom barely eating and harboring a secret....

Set against the tumultuous background of Niagara Falls, at a time when daredevils shot the river rapids in barrels and great industrial fortunes were made and lost as quickly as lives disappeared, The Day the Falls Stood Still is an intoxicating debut novel.

Harper Collins

About the Author
Cathy Marie Buchanan's stories have appeared in several of Canada's most respected literary journals: The Antigonish review, The Dalhousie Review, Descant, The New Quarterly  and Quarry. She holds a BSC (Honors Biochemistry) and an MBA from the University of Western Ontario. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she grew up amidthe awe-inspiring beauty of the Niagara River and awash in the local lore. She now resides in Toronto.  Visit her website at

Book Reviews

The Globe and Mail 
USA Today


  1. A précis of a discussion by The Red Deer Readers Reading Group held on Tuesday October 4th 2011, at the Red Deer Public House, Sheffield.

    Eleven of us settled down on an unusually warm – for October – evening, to discuss this novel. It is probably best to describe the more positive comments first before elaborating on the others that differed.

    The more favourable comments found the book “easy” to read, in terms of how one might apply the same term to “reading a magazine”. One member praised its “beach read” qualities; another felt that it was “alright….I suppose”. The retro qualities of the novel - the pictures, the newspaper cuttings etc - were also admired by some.

    The main thrust of the positive arguments was that the book’s “un-meatier” aspects provided a refreshing change to a “deeper” novel. We didn’t expect it to be anything challenging these members argued, and they readily applauded the book cover, the “nice” story and found it generally “undemanding” and “pleasantly wholesome”.

    It must be said, these comments failed to represent the majority view.

    Some of us were visibly incensed with this “trite, schoolgirl romance”. We were bored rigid by its “dull, predictable monotone” and “unrelenting blandness”. “Insufferable” said one as she related the misfortune of being subjected to Henry Hathaway’s film Niagra as a young person. It was clear the book had re-opened a sensitive wound.

    “Clichés all the way” and “superficial “said another as they condemned the predictable nature of this “unsuitable” love affair with the alcoholic father; the latter given a laughably easy ride from his equally unconvincing wife.

  2. Summary continued...
    There was a general problem with characters in this novel. Who were all these people? There seemed precious little means to differentiate between them. It was pointed out that several characters were at their most interesting “when they were dead”. Bess was too thin and lacking in charisma to be a first person narrator. We asked ourselves why she would have been so transfixed with the floating bodies in the Niagra River, when they would surely have been widely familiar to the local community. Tom Cohen was a papery thin, goody two shoes whose “new man“image was ill suited to the period. It was frustrating that he seemed unchanged following his sojourn in the trenches and merely continued to rescue small children. Mrs Hoffman, the German seamstress, could have provided an interesting turn of events but was abandoned to the realm of unfortunate caricature.

    We were mystified that a book pertaining to be about Niagra Falls should have contained so much about sewing. As fascinating as the various accounts of dresses and dress making were – and exquisitely rendered they were in places - they didn’t appear to add anything to the story. A lack of transporting descriptions of the Falls themselves was vehemently lamented - and why the irritating quotation from Charles Dickens?

    The novel’s time-line was incoherent in terms of when events actually occurred and there was general confusion surrounding Isobel, with the pearl choker episode causing especial annoyance.

    The ending was dismissed as “gluttonously sentimental” and there was a regrettable comparison made with the 1970’s television series “The Little House on the Prairie”. On reflection the comparison seemed inappropriate given the latter’s superior gravitas.

    In many ways this book was a missed opportunity. We wanted to know more about this unique and awe inspiring place. We were intrigued by the potential of the politics, the greed and the drama of developing water driven power at such a prescient time and at such a prestigious location. Yet this novel was distinctly lacking in depth, layers or metaphor and “neither immersed you in the past nor provided a view of the past with modern sensibilities”.


    An overall vote was requested. No thumbs up. Thumbs poised at a ninety degree angle, commonly associated with hitchhiking but in this case denoting a lukewarm response, were outnumbered by those thumbs gesturing Southwards – roughly a seven against four split in terms of negative to positive.

  3. Fireside Readers21 October 2011 at 15:34

    As part of our exchange with Red Deer Readers in Sheffield, we do not read their response until after we have had our discussion so that we are not influenced in any way by their comments. As a result, you are about to read a very different response to The Day the Falls Stood Still than that proffered by our friends in the UK.
    All fifteen members present either liked or loved the book. There were many different reasons for the responses: from the exploration of the history of another part of this vast country that moved members to do internet searches regarding the falls and the daredevils, to the characters with their lives’ journeys and the quality of the writing.
    First, we appreciated the detail based on historical fact. The character, Tom Cole, is based on real life riverman, Red Hill; stories of his exploits are widely available on the internet. The fictional news stories provided a sense of time and place very effectively. As western Canadians most of us knew very little about the Niagara River or about the impact of the hydroelectric plants on the environment. Those who had been to the falls described the feeling of danger, the power, and the overwhelming pull of the falls. Someone had recently seen a documentary about rivermen today – there are still suicides, accidents and rescues; men work every day doing the same job in much the same way as Tom. The details of the sewing provided a sharp contrast between the lives of the Heath family before “the fall” and afterward. Isabel was the girl destined to wear the beautiful beaded wedding gown; in an instant her mother was reduced to making such dresses to support the family.
    Members enjoyed the book’s overarching themes of faith and intuition. The Catholic Loretto Academy looms above the town where nuns maintain a tradition of perpetual adoration – constant prayers, flecks of shimmering silver in the mist. Tom believes that Fergus is with him on the river and so he has nothing to fear. He believes that Isabel is with Bess. In despair Bess tells him that Fergus and Isabel are dead; they are dust; they are nothing. Tom’s last words to Bess are “Believe in me.”
    The characters, while engrossing, were not fully developed. Was Bess’ father manic-depressive? Did Bess’ mother love him and stick by him for that reason, or was it that as a woman of the period she had little choice? Was she believable in her role as family provider? Yes, she had “married up” and so had the dressmaking skills necessary; a woman of the upper classes would not have had those skills. The concept of marrying outside of your class recurs throughout the book – Isabel is jilted because she isn’t good enough for the Cruikshanks, she throws herself at Edward in a desperate attempt to make a suitable marriage, Isabel and her mother think that Bess is too good for Tom.

  4. Fireside Readers21 October 2011 at 15:39

    Summary continued...
    More serious were our concerns about the Heath’s move to Buffalo (which we found over-convenient ) and the sudden cure of Tom’s PTSD (which we considered unbelievable). We agreed that Tom’s character was too heroic, but allowed that the perfect man, the rough diamond, is really part of American mythology. Finally, the romance was a little too saccharine.
    Bess, the naïve school girl, proved far more resilient in the face of adversity than Isabel who was widely considered to be the family star. She struggled with her faith, her duty to her family, her wants and Tom’s dreams. When she went into the tavern and Tom’s hotel room, it was an impetuous action which she must have known full well would destroy her engagement to Edward and also her own financial safety. She rebelled again when she leaked Tom’s story to the press in order to free him of his job and the guilt he felt in working for the power company. Her progression from youth to full maturity is carefully and delicately written.
    Members felt “drawn in” to the book. Some spoke of a strong emotional connection to the characters and their stories. Was this a “woman’s book? Our sole male in the group assured us that it was not. Others spoke of the quality of the writing – “Great use of dialogue.” “Wonderful writing.”

  5. The historical novel being one of my favorite genres, I found The Day the Falls Stood Still intriguing. I thought it flowed smoothly, and was a great love story. For me, the characters were real, especially Tom and Bess. It is a story peopled with events, characters and scenes that stay with you after you have finished reading the book. Good choice.
    Hope to see you at our next meeting.

  6. I find it very interesting that two book groups separated by almost 7,000 km could independently choose two books which:
    1. are first books for both authors
    2. are set in roughly the same time period
    3. have similar themes – the fall of the wealthy, the lives of the rich and poor, the impact of WWI on communities and their young men, and the interests of industry over the environment.
    Coal? Hydroelectric power? The tar sands? Have we learned nothing in 100 years?

  7. Thanks for your great summary of our discussion Mary. I am one of the readers who love historical fiction, particularly fiction grounded in fact I can check out on the net. I liked this book for the authors use of language and dialogue, the fascinating parts of our history that I knew little about, and the interesting, even compelling, mix of characters.

  8. It find it interesting that our esteemed friends across the pond had such distasteful things to say about this book. I wonder if perhaps each group, while sharing a common name, has little else in common especially when making book selections. Library Mary, you posted some commonalities between the 2 book selections. I believe that the differences trump the similarities.

    First: In my opinion, good writers draw upon fact to enrich a story, which when done well adds dimension to the challenges the book's characters face. Factual regurgitation is best left to the non-fiction writer as fiction readers are usually interested in the story beyond the story. I found Black Diamonds to be too fact-laden and left me playing "editor" - selecting bits that I thought pertinent to the "story" part of the history. By contrast, Cathy Marie Buchanan's use of historical events added to the story of Tom and the lore of river watching. As a native of the Niagara area myself I found her description of the scenery, and portrayal of the characters surrounding this "beast of nature" to be both accurate and luring.

    The scathing comments from our partner book club lead me to wonder what the members would think of our Canadian greats - Margaret Atwood and Alice Munroe and others.

  9. Margaret Laurence, Mordechai Richler, Robertson Davies are my personal favourites among the Canadian greats, but I could go on and on...