Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Katherine Catmull, Fri., Jan. 26, 2001
In Sunlight, in a Beautiful GardenA Novel
by Kathleen Cambor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272pp., $23
If you're looking for rich, allusive prose, for fiction ripe with fruitful ambiguity and unanswerable questions, here's a tip: The historical novel is not for you. With its authors honor-bound to shovel boatloads of facts down your brain, historical fiction must balance literary and pedagogic concerns -- a "balance" that often turns into a sacrifice of the former for the latter. But perhaps that observation misses the whole point. For immersion in another time and culture, with generous dollops of romance and tragedy (both domestic and historic) on the side, Kathleen Cambor's In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden may be just the thing.
Cambor, who just stepped down as the director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, takes as her subject the notorious Johnstown flood, in which 2,209 people were killed when the South Fork dam broke above Johnstown, Penn., on Memorial Day, 1889. The furious waters uprooted hundred-year-old trees and razed brick buildings. One of every nine Johnstown residents died.
As Cambor shows, all that devastation had a clear cause: human greed and neglect. The dam was owned and (badly) maintained by the exclusive South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, where families with names like Mellon, Frick, and Carnegie came for expensive arcadian frolics. The wealthy clubmen ignored repeated warnings that their earthen dam was unsafe and in poor repair. For the sake of the dam's splendid mountain lake, perfect for fishing and sailing, they gambled the lives of the workers in the steel mill town below.
The fatal flood itself is described in just a few terse, albeit powerful, pages near the end of the book. But the presence of death pervades the novel, just as it did 19th-century American lives, and Cambor stitches this black thread particularly well. Childhood diseases like diphtheria may suddenly carry off half a family. And the special horror of the Civil War scarred nearly all the families -- except for those wealthy enough to buy their sons out of it.
Dozens of lives touched (or destroyed) by the flood speak through Cambor's intersubjective narration, which flows from the point of view of one character to another, with no objective third-person guide. The technique creates a powerfully multifaceted world. But sometimes it also makes Cambor stumble with one of those shovelfuls of facts. Here, for example, is an Irish immigrant in unlikely conversation with a young child:
"It's a wonder," his mother had said to Frank. She took any and every opportunity to supply him with statistics. "The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal," she said, while hooking buttons through the stitched holes of his boots, "covers 394 miles, with 16 aqueducts, 64 locks, more than 150 bridges."
The statistics-oppressed tot here grows up to be Frank Fallon, a steelworker and veteran of Gettysburg. He is married to Julia, a doctor's daughter whose life and marriage are nearly destroyed by the deaths of two of their children. At the center of the book is the curious, largely epistolary relationship between their eldest son Daniel, a college-educated union activist, and Nora -- daughter of the lawyer who chartered the club -- who dreams of becoming a naturalist. These two stretch tentatively toward each other across rigid class borders, a shy coupling that in the end only heightens the bitter gulf between them.
Among the many, many other characters here, Cambor even fleshes out a few robber barons like H. C. Frick and Andrew Carnegie, clubmen who never paid any price for the ruin they inflicted. Reading In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden, we may feel sharp disgust for a time when those upstream were shielded from the very catastrophe they caused, while those downstream bore its full horror. We may also consider whether things are so very different today.