A great fictional subject is given impressive full-scale treatment in Cambor’s strong second novel (after The Book of Mercy, 1996).
The Johnstown Flood of 1889 remains lodged in the American imagination as the classic example of a disaster that need not have occurred. It did, though, because the builders of a lavish estate in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains, commissioned by Andrew Carnegie and his fellow plutocrats (the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club), arrogantly tempted fate and ignored numerous warnings that an aging, improperly maintained dam could not withstand unusually heavy rains (“It was as if no people lived below it, no world existed in the mountains but the one they were creating”). In a richly detailed fusion of history and fiction, Cambor explores the lives of such historical figures as the Scottish-born Carnegie himself (an industrialist with the soul of an aesthete), his ruthlessly pragmatic CEO Henry Clay Frick, and tenderhearted, philanthropic Andrew Mellon, juxtaposed against those of several strikingly vivid invented characters. The latter include Civil War veteran Frank Fallon, steel mill foreman and stoical patriarch of a stricken family; his “hollowed, fractured, parched” wife Julia, who seeks consolation for her sorrows in a loving friendship with Johnstown librarian Grace McIntyre, the independent woman to whom Frank is also drawn; their son Daniel, torn between his hunger for learning and his “radical” sympathies with exploited laborers; Nora Talbot, whose secretive trysts with Daniel both distract and quicken her passionate scientific interests; and Nora’s father James, the Virginian attorney who will waste his life in frustrated efforts to make the South Fork magnates pay for their neglect. The scenes involving these characters are without exception amply imagined and beautifully written; their counterparts, focused on the imperious captains of industry “above” their unfortunate neighbors, are too often flatly accusatory and crammed with only partially dramatized historical information.
Very nearly a wonderful novel, nevertheless, and clear proof that Cambor is one of the more interesting and unpredictable of our contemporary writers.