Q&A with Cathy Marie Buchanan
1. What was it like growing up in Niagara Falls?
I grew up in the north end of Niagara Falls, in an area not all that different-looking from most 1960s suburban neighbourhoods—though there were continual reminders that I was not living in just any town. We’d make the trek to the falls when we had visitors, riding the Maid of the Mist, walking through Queen Victoria Park, and gazing out over the Niagara Gorge. Being from an outdoorsy family, I certainly did my fair share of swimming at Dufferin Islands and picnicking at Queenston Heights and climbing in and out of the Niagara Glen, all treasures along the river. There was an eagerly awaited day each year when the local kids could use their library cards as proof of their special status and hit every wax museum and house of horrors on Clifton Hill for free. Of course, all the teenagers in Niagara Falls had summer jobs within stones’ throws of one another, which made for raucous summers. And there was the never-ending stream of quirky Niagara Falls lore, some of it impossible to overlook—incidents like a high school boyfriend’s brother surviving the plunge over the falls in a barrel (wearing only cowboy boots and a hat).
Was I awed by the magnificence of my surroundings? I once attended a wedding reception at Queen Victoria Park Restaurant, overlooking the falls, and was taken aback when the out-of-towners spontaneously stood up and applauded when the floodlights were turned on, lighting up the falls. My surprise, I think, came more from being unaccustomed to the reaction of people seeing Niagara Falls for the first time than from having grown immune to the beauty of my own backyard. This moment came during my first years living away from Niagara Falls, the years when I first discovered it was possible to miss a river. I’d visit on most occasions when I was home, lengthening my running route from my parents’ house just so I could glimpse the gorge, whiling away afternoons in the Niagara Glen.
And now, after years of researching and writing The Day the Falls Stood Still
, that line forever linking me to Niagara Falls has grown weightier still.
2. In the “Author’s Note” at the end of The Day the Falls Stood Still
, you discuss the incorporation of some of the aspects of Niagara’s most famous riverman, William “Red” Hill, into Tom Cole. How much of the book is grounded in history rather than the purely imagined?
Before putting pen to paper, I researched the history of Niagara Falls for four months, and throughout the writing, I was constantly turning back to the history books. With Niagara Falls’s storied past, I found plenty of fodder. The difficulty lay in figuring out what to use. The river stunts (Captain Matthew Webb’s fateful swim, Maud Willard’s suffocation, Walter Campbell’s gondolier-like navigation of the rapids, Charles Stephens’s daring plunge with an anvil tied to his feet) are based on actual events. The accidents (the careening trolley car at Queenston, the collapse of Table Rock) are as well, along with the Ellet’s bridge, ice bridge, and scow rescues. Loretto Academy, Glenview, the Windsor Hotel, and the power companies are described as they were during the time frame of the book. The story details surrounding the development of hydroelectricity at Niagara Falls are factual. The term “the day the falls stood still” was coined back in 1848 to describe the very real day the river became jammed up with ice and ceased to flow. And one last bit of lore, which it would be remiss not to mention here: Archbishop Lynch did in fact see a picture of the falls as a boy and conjure up prayers floating heavenward with the mist, a notion that would, years later, lead to the tradition of perpetual adoration at Loretto Academy.
3. Where do you weigh in on the whole question of faith?
My much-loved father died as I approached the end of the first draft of The Day the Falls Stood Still
. The depth of my grief was astounding to me, as was my inability to grasp the concept of mortality. Where was my father? Why was he gone? Why had he spent seventy-four years on this earth? Why was I here? Was humankind’s existence entirely accidental? I will not pretend for a moment that I’ve figured any of this out. What did happen was that my bewilderment found a home in Bess. To make her real, I read wonderful books-Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking
, C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed
-but I found myself taking solace in their articulation of my own heartache. I read more, again for Bess, this time about faith, the loss of faith and its emergence—Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness
, C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life
, Armand M. Nicholi’s The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life
. There was a time when I would have unequivocally stated that humankind is nothing more than the product of random variations and natural selection, but I’ve seen a flickering sliver of light, perhaps borne of need, moments where I’ve glimpsed something I will call faith as a possibility for me.
4. In The Day the Falls Stood Still
, Tom sees the Niagara River as threatened by the power companies. Do you see the river and falls as vulnerable today?
There is a long history of the falls being vulnerable. The book’s epigraph comes from an oration delivered at the opening of the New York State Reservation at Niagara Falls in 1885. The reservation was the result of a sixteen-year, hard-fought battle by a group of prominent men led by Frederick Law Olmsted, most widely known for designing New York City’s Central Park. For the first time in American history, public money had been used by a state to expropriate land for purely aesthetic purposes. Close to 150 buildings, including mills and factories built along the river to harness its power, were demolished. Canada followed suit two years later, establishing Queen Victoria Park at Niagara Falls, Ontario’s first publicly owned park. The falls themselves were not yet considered vulnerable.
The Boundary Waters Treaty in place at the close of The Day the Falls Stood Still
was replaced in 1950 by the much more lenient Niagara Diversion Treaty. A minimum flow over the falls was set at 100,000 cubic feet/second during the daylight hours of the tourist season and 50,000 cubic feet/second at all other times. With the treaty still in effect today, the “tourist flow” over the falls amounts to about 50 percent of the water entering the Niagara River and the “non-tourist flow” about 25 percent. Needless to say, the treaty paved the way for more hydroelectric development on both sides of the river. Today, with the Sir Adam Beck II plant generating electricity alongside the renamed Queenston powerhouse, Sir Adam Beck I, and the Niagara Power Project generating electricity on the American side of the river, the minimum flow set out in the treaty is reached more often than not.
With our history of upping diversion limits to accommodate our insatiable need for electricity, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning coal, and the world’s largest rock boring machine currently cutting the largest-ever diversion tunnel under the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario, it would be untruthful to say I do not have moments of fear for the future of Niagara Falls. This, despite a line from that 1885 oration-“[we] mark out the boundaries of the sanctuary, expel from the interior all ordinary human pursuits and claims, so that visitors and pilgrims from near or far may come hither and be permitted to behold.”
About Cathy Marie Buchanan