It is the end of Bess’s junior year at Loretto Academy, a high school for girls run by nuns in the shadow of Niagara Falls. She knows something is wrong when her father doesn’t appear at the graduation ceremony and when the nuns inexplicably present her with farewell gifts; her father has been fired from his job as the director of the Niagara Power Company. Bess must return home, care for her suddenly ill sister Isabel, and assist her mother in dressmaking to keep the family afloat. On the way from Loretto, a young man carries her trunk, and later passes by her house, with the gift of a fish. Bess had counted on hardship, but she hadn’t counted on love with a riverman or the future she would have.
There are many things to love about this book. The prose is gorgeous, for one thing, as are the descriptions. It’s almost possible to feel the cool mist off the falls, as the characters do, or the deadly beauty of the whirlpools. Bess is a strong woman up there with the best of them, coping with her family’s losses and tragedy and somehow managing every single time. Her strength grows over the course of the novel, from a girl afraid of what her mother is thinking to a woman that has her own business and is ready to turn down society ladies regardless of what they think. There is all the innocence and wonder of a first love affair, more so because this one is so explicit, that conflict between duty and desire.
And yet there was somehow a lack of connection. I liked the book, but I didn’t love it. Bess is a sympathetic character but always from a distance; by the end of the novel she has grown so strong that any attempts to empathize with her feel as though they would be pushed away. It felt as though she didn’t experience emotions strongly enough at that point, she just moved on. The book had potential to be one of a series of great, sweeping romances marred with tragedy, but it stopped just short. Or maybe I just was in the mood for something more explicit, or perhaps I’m just lucky that I’ve never had to be that strong. To be honest, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the book is in present tense, which always feels more distant to me.
I much preferred the historical bits. I loved learning more about Niagara Falls and that Tom Cole was based on a real man. The pictures evoke a sense of history a little bit stronger than the words themselves and the newspaper articles, fictional or not, fleshed out the history of the story without long or boring exposition. I was interested in the sewing techniques and the dresses Bess described, in the books she was reading, in the new electric appliances that houses had. I was fascinated by the setting and I wouldn’t mind spending a little more time there.
Though I liked and didn’t love The Day the Falls Stood Still, I’d still recommend it for those who enjoy historical fiction or are looking for a compelling love story.