A dive into the untold history of Niagara Falls.
“I went to Niagara because I wanted to laugh at it,” declares Strand (Environmental Criticism/Fordham Univ.; Flight, 2005). What started as a tongue-in-cheek lark quickly morphed into a full-fledged obsession. The author plumbs this iconic locale’s historical depths, starting with explorers Hennepin and La Salle, the interwoven stories of Seneca tribes and early Niagara tourist-trappers. She limns the creation and re-creation of Niagara as a tourist destination, the advent of the honeymooners, secret government toxic dumping and current-day development fiascos. At times, Strand’s prose soars; at others, it plods. She’s a cultural historian, not a storyteller, and her narrative frequently bogs down in minutiae—though the breadth of her research is impressive. One section describes the daring acts of Blondin, cheered by crowds in 1859 and 1860 for crossing Niagara by tightrope. “America was transfixed,” Strand writes, “by a man’s impossible journeys across the very river slaves regularly crossed to freedom.” The author is at her best when she approaches a Niagara phenomenon from every conceivable angle until it is thoroughly analyzed and contextualized. In one section, she starts with Marilyn Monroe, the filming of Niagara and the descent in spring of 2006 of the Red Hat Society, a club for women over 50. With a quirky penchant for outlandish details, Strand expertly assembles pieces that seem at first to be from two different puzzles. It’s no accident, she suggests, that the impotence drug Viagra’s name so closely echoes Niagara: “as a symbol for potency—size, power, force—the Falls are unsurpassed, even before you throw in the honeymooners.”
Excessive detail sometimes makes this a heavy slog, but Strand’s ability to ferret out Niagara’s many different symbolic connotations provides fresh vantage points on an icon “so familiar, it’s almost hard to see.”