My friend Mitty – AKA Elizabeth Varadan of The Fourth Wish blog – wrote a review for the Sacramento Book Review of Three Rivers Rising: a Novel of the Johnstown Flood by Jame Richards. First, I must admit I have a kind of voyeuristic fascination with disasters. Secondly, I love historical fiction. Thirdly, if Mitty says a book is “compelling” and “lyrical,” I’m going to have to read it, even if it is a novel in verse, which I find a little off-putting. (It has something to do with my insecurity about poetry. See my last post.) I picked up a copy and am so glad I did.
This story has it all – forbidden romance, heroes who risk their own lives to save many others, a boorish upper class who build their private playground with no regard for others, and a natural disaster of Biblical proportions. Richards weaves the stories of three different women whose lives ultimately intersect at the most horrific and remarkable of times.
Celestia Whitcomb spends summers with her family at Lake Conemaugh, a man-made lake created by an earthen dam above a valley of working-class villages and the town of Johnstown. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club had been built by wealthy men on the shores of “their lake” as a summer get-away for them and their families. It is there she meets and falls in love with Peter, a worker at the club and a resident of Johnstown, a town in the valley below the dam. Of course, such a romance is forbidden, and they are forced apart. Celestia is sent to Europe, but they secretly stay in touch and hope to be reunited one day. When she returns to Lake Conemaugh, she finds Peter has left the club. She defies her father and goes to Johnstown to be with Peter.
Also below the dam lives Maura, a young mother of four, married to the love of her life, Joseph, a conductor on the train that runs through the valley. Her life is filled with the never-ending chores of raising a family on the little they have, while she waits for her Joseph to return to her each night.
Kate lost her fiancé in a drowning accident. She had to leave her home because she could not bear to be there any more without her love. She went to nursing school and is on her way to her first job when the train brings her through the valley just as disaster strikes.
Rain had fallen for days and the dam weakened. No one really believes the dam will not hold, but suddenly it is gone. All three women are in the valley below at that moment. All have survival as their goal – for themselves, their loved-ones, and those around them.
The story of the Jonestown flood is a huge one, but Richards tells it extremely well, building great characters and making us care about them, all in under 30,000 words – spare, elegant verse that draws readers in and holds onto them through this sad, sweet story of love, strength, and survival. I recommend it. It’s a young adult book, but I believe adults will love it as well.