First novel offers a romantic take on Niagara Falls life in the early 20th century, complete with old photographs to buttress the nostalgic mood.
In 1915, Bess Heath’s father is fired as director of the Niagara Power Company and the family finances crumble. Her mother supports the family with dressmaking. Bess must leave her private school. Worst of all, Bess’s sister Isabel is dumped by her fiancé and sinks into a serious depression. Financial salvation seems at hand when Edward, the dull brother of Bess’s best friend, comes courting. Isabel flirts outrageously, but Edward proposes to Bess. Under parental pressure she accepts, although she has already begun a shy romance with Tom. He is deemed inappropriate not only because he’s working-class but because of the nature of his work; he’s a river man who retrieves “floaters”—drowned bodies. Shortly before Bess’s wedding, Isabel drowns herself. When Tom finds the body, he helps Bess hide Isabel’s pregnancy. Propelled by grief and flaunting convention, Bess breaks off with Edward to marry Tom, who shortly thereafter goes off to World War I. These early scenes are the novel’s most engrossing. Once Tom returns the book moves more quickly and shallowly. Tom recovers from his traumatic war experience by performing acts of bravery at the Falls. Although he takes a job at the Hydro-Electric Power Commission to support their growing family, he doesn’t believe the progress electricity offers is worth the price to the environment and eventually quits to become an activist. Meanwhile, Bess and Tom’s little boy Jesse is as drawn to the river as Tom. The spiritual connection Tom, Jesse and Bess feel to the river takes on mystical dimensions. After tragedy strikes, the uplifting ending has a decidedly religious tinge.
Buchanan’s prose is elegant, but sentimentality limits her achievement.