THE DAY THE FALLS STOOD STILL
By Cathy Marie Buchanan
307 pages, $22.99
Review by Frank Moher
Halfway through The Day the Falls Stood Still, a first novel by Toronto author Cathy Marie Buchanan, I thought it might be a worthy companion to Timothy Findley’s World War I novel, The Wars — a sort of distaff variation on themes of violence and love. By the time I was through, though, I realized that did it a disservice. In writerly terms, it is a better novel than The Wars — more convincing, less grandiloquent. And its reach is both broader and deeper. Beneath its domestic surface, this riveting novel paints death not as a faraway phenomenon but as an ongoing, even comforting fact of early Canadian life, as constant as the Niagara River.
Its heroine is the deliciously named Bess Heath, a young woman prematurely catapulted from the private academy which has been her world when her father is fired from his job at an electric company. Gone, suddenly, are the accoutrements of upper middle-class Ontario life: the household help, the lazy days in the garden, the steady supply of new dresses. Instead, Bess’s mother must return to her own previous life as a seamstress, taking in orders while her husband drinks away defeat in a local tavern.
Her destitution, though, reaches only modestly Canadian levels before she meets a boy, Tom. The grandson of a local hero celebrated for his river rescues, he is more rough-hewn and sinewy than the family friend whom Bess’s mother would have her marry — and hence irresistible. Their courtship is a delicate exchange of baked goods for natural tokens, ferns pressed between shale and left where Bess will find them. Tom is, of course, the spirit of the wild made incarnate, but never less than fully realized in Buchanan’s sensuous rendering.
They are barely married before he decides he has to go off to fight The Hun. The book stays behind with Bess, and comes into its own as both a testament to the stoic pluck of the women at home, and a portrait of the moment when government finally trumped private enterprise as first mover in Canadian public life. Wielding the slogan “dona naturae pro populo sunt” (“the gifts of nature are for the public”), M.P. and manufacturing magnate Adam Beck convinces the Ontario electorate to build a powerhouse on the Niagara, and its taming begins. But even as light flows to new corners of the province, Bess is ringed by darkness, as Tom’s regiment is shipped off to Passchendaele and she awaits news of his fate.
“I saw the boy who delivers the telegrams pause at the far end of the front walk,” Buchanan writes, of Bess’s first brush with disaster. “He flipped through the papers in his hands, looked up at the house, and then down again. I closed my eyes, pressed my face against my palms, and with every ounce of will I could muster wished away the boy and the telegram addressed to me.”
It works. But Bess lives with the knowledge that the river, too, might snatch away a loved one at any moment, as it already has her sister and countless daredevils and drunks. Buchanan, who was born and raised in Niagara Falls, deftly underscores her novel with their white noise, as if to say that war is just a theatrical version of the brute forces that the women in her novel — bearing children, tending the ill, and worrying when a husband or child doesn’t return for supper on time — face every day.
The Day the Falls Stood Still is an extraordinarily assured first novel. It comes illustrated with period photos and drawings that are, like its events, at once foreboding and darkly beautiful. (I only wish the book was printed on paper that did the illustrations justice.) It is a southern Ontario Gothic of the highest order, and deserves to take its place alongside the best novels of the Great War, and the years that couched it. As it reminds us, not all its battles were fought in Europe.
First published in The National Post.