In the years following the Civil War, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, ninety miles east of Pittsburgh, became a thriving steel town. Fifteen miles northeast of the town, the Allegheny mountains, the lake created by the South Fork Dam, the easy railroad connections, and the proximity to Pittsburgh all combined to create an apparently ideal location for the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive vacation retreat for Pittsburgh’s wealthy—the Carnegies, Mellons, Fricks, and their friends and peers. Johnstown residents who did not work in the steel mills often worked as maids and waiters at the South Fork resort. When the South Fork Dam collapsed—the result of careless maintenance and unusually heavy spring rains, Johnstown was nearly obliterated. Over 2,200 people died as a crushing wall of water swept through the valley. It was the United States’ worst natural disaster in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Kathleen Cambor uses the tensions lingering from the Civil War as a backdrop for this novel. The war was an event that touched characters on both sides of the divide formed by the dam—that looming symbol of the barricade between working-class Johnstown and the wealthy South Fork Club. Indeed, the novel’s central historical event—the flood itself—occurred on Memorial Day weekend, and the novel opens as Frank Fallon, a Civil War veteran, prepares to march in the town’s memorial parade. For the members of the South Fork Club, the nation’s rapid industrial growth in the postwar years had provided them with the fertile soil in which their fortunes had grown.
The exception to South Fork wealth is the Talbot family, who visit South Fork through James Talbot’s dispensation as lawyer to the Club. Talbot is the one surviving member of a southern family; all his brothers died in the war. He escaped only because of his mother’s insistence that he be sent to France. His survivor’s guilt still haunts him; thus, he refuses to tell his daughter Nora anything about his past, a secrecy which contributes to her general sense of alienation. The Talbots spend two weeks each summer at the South Fork Club, but their financial position leaves them on the fringe of its social world. Such exclusion is a source of great tension for Talbot’s wife, Evelyn, a woman of driving social ambition.
For Nora, however, the social activities of the “younger set” at the club, their fashions and their flirtations, are immaterial. She feels little bond with them; instead she loves the beauty of the lake and the mountains. Early in her life, it had become clear to her that her father would never have time for her and that she would never be the social success of her mother’s cold expectations; at that time she began to find her deepest joy in a serious study of nature. Now she uses her time at the club to escape her parents’ surveillance and spends her days in the mountains, making notes and drawings of what she has observed in the area’s insect life. During the other fifty weeks of the year, she survives by surreptitiously reading the serious entomological works of the day.
Part of the pleasure of an historical novel rises from the author’s successful evocation of a time and place the reader can know only through literature. Cambor manages this task deftly, supplying the evocative details without overburdening her story. On one level, the world of America in the 1880’s emerges as part of the plot’s exposition. Frank Fallon, for example, had been taken by his immigrant parents to see Charles Dickens during the great novelist’s tour of the United States. The Fallons are not eager readers of fiction (they spend too much energy in merely staying alive) and young Frank was too little to know what the fuss is about, but the event remains in his memory and becomes an icon for some quality of life he hopes to claim. As an adult, he reads Dickens and his first foray into the Johnstown library is to find the author’s later works.
Another example of Cambor’s use of historical background comes from the diphtheria epidemic in which two of the Fallon children die. In the l870’s, when this epidemic occurs, diphtheria was about a decade away from thorough scientific study. Consequently, even Mrs. Fallon’s father, a physician, is unable to do anything to save his grandchildren from the disease that races through Johnstown, as it did periodically through many communities in nineteenth century America.
The fashions and interests of the age, too, are interwoven in the novel’s action,...