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15 October 2005

In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden

By Kathleen Cambor

From Amazon.com: "From the very start, we know that many of the characters in Kathleen Cambor's haunting novel will die before it's over. This lends a sepia-toned dignity to what is already a fairly somber tale. In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden tells the story of the Johnstown flood of 1889, in which over 2,000 people - mostly working folk, who had no say in the erection of the ill- considered South Fork dam - lost their lives. The author has enlisted a large cast, including real-life plutocrats Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. But her focus remains on such fictional characters as Frank Fallon, a Civil War veteran enjoying a brief, platonic affair with the town librarian; his son Daniel, a labor organizer; and Nora Talbot, the science-minded daughter of a middle-class lawyer who comes to believe that the dam, built to create an upper- crust aquatic playground, is in danger of flooding the town below."

The title comes from Pelléas et Mélisande:
"I have been watching you; you were there, unconcerned perhaps, but with the strange distraught air of someone expecting a great misfortune, in sunlight, in a beautiful garden." - Arkel to Mélisande

I saw a documentary about the Johnstown Flood several years ago, the harrowing details of which made me cry. My imagination could not grapple successfully with the terror and horror of such an event, which still stands as the 9th deadliest day for American citizens in the history of the USA. The flood killed over 2,200 people (in a city of roughly 20,000) and caused $17 million in damage ($350 billion in today's dollars). Compare this with the recent disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina in which 1,274 people were killed (in a city of 1.3 million) and an estimated $200 billion in damage wrought.

The novel itself is gorgeous, elegant. I half expected a disaster romp like the final 45 minutes of Titanic, but Cambor never stoops to that level. Instead, only approxi- mately ten pages out of 250+ are devoted to the flood, in a chapter plainly entitled "The Club's Final Year." The majority of the novel spans two generations (in flashbacks) and nine years (in narrative) of the large cast of characters. These are lives in progress. The shock and simplicity of what Cambor has achieved is that her characters had histories AND plans for their futures. Young lovers were to meet again after months apart. Frank Fallon, the steadfast iron worker, was to promise himself to a woman other than his wife. But those plans, for most, were cut down in a single paragraph as the water pummeled the town into oblivion.

The proportion of "non-flood" to "flood" pages read like a stark contrast to how reporters related the Katrina disaster to everyone outside of New Orleans. In the age of instant news coverage, we see graphic illustrations of disasters whenever they arise, but we have no inkling of the lives that lead up until those terrible moments. And then, when the next disaster occurs, we move with the news ticker while others remain behind, trapped in their loss.

I had never heard of the Johnstown Flood until I watched that documentary years ago. For many reading this, it may be unfamiliar as well: 20 million tons of water bearing down on a valley at 40 miles per hour, taking with it an entire rail yard with 50 locomotives and a barbed-wire factory, which became the gigantic, unfathomable debris that crashed upon the town, sweeping people into its current, and then burning for three days on fuel from the engines. And the fact that something so horrific can be forgotten by those outside of the region must put Katrina into perspective. Will that disaster be remembered in the years to come? Will it become emblematic of a terrible, blinding hubris - the arrogance of rich leaders at the expense of ordinary lives - as Johnstown was for the barons of its day?

I enjoyed this novel. I was moved by its honesty. I was in dread of its finale. But Cambor knew what readers would expect. When the flood came, eventually, the prose read like a textbook, as if even now we cannot imagine ourselves beyond the facts of what happened, that perhaps the facts need no embellishment. Instead, she threw the emotional punches at unexpected moments, allowing instances of very personal (non-flood related) grief to stand in place of what must have been multiplied 1000-fold for the Johns- town survivors. We humans cannot think on the scale of 2,200 people dead. We can, however, relate to mother who must say good-bye to her son as he embarks for war or to a man who cannot cope when his lover succombs to illness. Cambor, with a very subtle understanding of how people can and cannot perceive tragedy, did not overburden her book with graphic details. She skipped the gore, told a fantastic story, and did her subject justice.

Blogger Tess said...

I read this many years ago, and I remember it being rather slow. I'd be interested to go back to it in the wake of Katrina, though.


Blogger carrie_lofty said...

I liked its slowness in that it had reason to be so deliberate. I could relate to the characters, the history, and the gentle suspense - the mechanics of waiting to read how Cambor would go about ruining what she had so carefully created. As a writer myself, I don't know if I could spend so much time bringing those "people" to life with the fore-knowledge that they'd all be dead by the end of the book. I'm a real softy for happy endings.

And compared to Talking to the Dead, this was a page turner (which should tell you something)!


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