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In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden: A Novel Paperback – March 5, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

From the very start, we know that many of the characters in Kathleen Cambor's haunting first novel will die before it's over. This lends a sepia-toned dignity to what is already a fairly somber tale. In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden tells the story of the Johnstown flood of 1889, in which over 2,000 people--mostly working folk, who had no say in the erection of the ill-considered South Fork dam--lost their lives. The author has enlisted a large cast, including real-life plutocrats Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. But her focus remains on such fictional characters as Frank Fallon, a Civil War veteran enjoying a brief, platonic affair with the town librarian; his son Daniel, a labor organizer; and Nora Talbot, the science-minded daughter of a middle-class lawyer who comes to believe that the dam, built to create an upper-crust aquatic playground, is in danger of flooding the town below.

Cambor excels at depicting both the minor joys and the major tragedies in her characters' lives. Frank Fallon and his wife Julia, for example, have lost both of their children to diphtheria:

It meant something to Julia to be the one to wash the bodies before the undertaker came. To leave Caroline's sickbed long enough to tend to her two younger children. To fill the basin with water warmed by the wood stove, to smooth the hair, to touch and trace their flesh one last time, memorizing them again, as she had right after she had birthed them. Touching toes, chin, the curled cusp of ear, the rounded mound of cheek, the dips and promontories of their supple spines. Frank couldn't bring himself to watch.
Devotees of the historical novel will warm to Cambor's judicious use of period detail and her exacting prose, but may wish she had placed less emphasis on foreshadowing. We are told one too many times that the privileged men who built the dam had no interest in its structure or safety: "Someone should have been watching." On the other hand, Cambor has the good narrative sense to confine the flood itself and its horrific aftermath to the final pages of the book. There we are also given a glimpse of Nora Talbot in later life, marked by her youthful love affair with Daniel and by the waters that were--in every sense of the phrase--to part them. --Regina Marler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Cambor (The Book of Mercy) deserves a wide readership for her second novel, set against the backdrop of the Johnstown, Pa., flood of 1889. The South Fork Dam separates two very different worlds: above it lies the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose members include captains of industry like Henry Frick and Andrew Mellon; below it are scattered several working-class towns. When James Talbot, a lawyer hired to secure the club's charter, alerts the members to the earthen dam's structural problems, his warnings go unheeded. Talbot, haunted by his failure to serve in the Civil War, determines to assuage his guilt by keeping watch over the dam and its constant repairs, but the wealthy club members have no interest in the families living below South Fork. Cambor creates a fully imagined cast: Frank Fallon, a steel mill foreman and Civil War veteran; his wife, Julia, who lost two of her four children in the 1879 diphtheria epidemic; and their surviving son, 23-year-old Daniel, who studies Greek with Grace McIntyre, a librarian from Boston who has secrets of her own. Daniel falls in love with James Talbot's daughter, Nora, a budding naturalist and scholar who holds herself separate from the South Fork club members. Cambor has a gift for imparting much factual information lyrically and thrillingly: the process of manufacturing steel rods is rendered as beautifully as Nora's sexual awakening. Diamond sharp, deep and passionate, this is an accomplished, moving work. Agent, Heather Schroeder. (Jan.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (March 5, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060007575
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060007577
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #397,281 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader on January 17, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In this rich and beautiful novel, Kathleen Cambor takes greatest industrial disaster in U.S. history and makes is heartrendingly immediate and terribly suspenseful. Her cast of characters, from the wealthiest men in the United States to factory workers, are so fully imagined that you'll be unable to leave the book without knowing whether or not they survived the bursting of the dam that had held the river back for decades.
Cambor does a lot of artful stage-setting, developing the reader's understanding of Johnstown's particular location and the construction of the dam through character. The beauty of the Pennsylvania mountain landscape is expressed by a young girl whose love for the outdoors makes her the only person from the lake to connect with someone from the town below. That young man is sparking the first unionization movement in the factories. His father and mother are both drawn to the town's librarian, a woman with a secret who helps prepare their son for college.
When the dam broke it took almost an hour for the wall of water to reach Johnstown. By the time it did, the force of the flood had dragged locomotives, houses, and corpses with it. The sound must have been terrifying and there was no where to go to escape it. Cambor's handling of the disaster is masterful; she tells you enough about the fate of her characters, but not so much as to break your heart.
"In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden" is a novel of complexity and grace, and it works on all levels.
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38 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Neighbor on January 23, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Since 1889, many novels have been written that have used the 1889 Johnstown Flood as a historical backdrop...the first being written just a few months after the disaster. Quite simply, this is one of the best.
I have been professionally studying the Johnstown Flood for almost a decade, and I am quite impressed with the research the author did, and the excellent effort to present the results of that research in a most compelling way.
She has created characters that you end up caring about a great deal. In fact, you'll likely be thinking about those characters long after you finish the book. She has almost perfectly captured the emotions and anguish that affected so many in the valley before and after the Flood. Quite importantly, you realize that there is indeed more to this story than most history books will tell you.
You will also be refreshed at the beautifully crafted writing...something that is so rare these days in the world of fiction.
Just remember, this is a piece of fiction. I encourage you to also read David McCullough's masterful 1968 book, 'The Johnstown Flood' for an excellent treatment of the Flood story.
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By BeachReader on January 26, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden by Kathleen Cambor is a novelization of the events leading up to the horrific Johnstown Flood of 1889 in Pennsylvania when over 2200 people lost their lives. After a night of heavy rains, the South Fork Dam had broken, sending 20 million tons of water crashing down the narrow valley into Johnstown. Carrying huge chunks of debris, the wall of flood water was as high as 60 feet, moving downhill at 40 miles per hour, destroying everything in its path.
In this mostly character-driven novel, the author manages to intimately acquaint us with many of the residents of the area and those who were visitors. In fact, she has managed to produce somewhat of a social history of that time and place. It is obvious that Cambor has done extensive research because, as the reader, I felt that the great attention to detail really put me into Johnstown in1889 as she set the stage for the disaster that was to come.
The South Fork dam which burst was below the site of a "gentlemen's club", The South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, started by many of the wealthy industrialists of that time who lived in Pittsburgh (Frick, Carnegie, Mellon) and used by them as a mostly summer getaway.
Fourteen miles up the Little Conemaugh River, on whose banks Johnstown was built, a three-mile long lake was precariously held on the side of a mountain - 450 feet higher than Johnstown - by the old South Fork Dam. The dam had been neglected and poorly maintained, and every spring there was fear that the dam might not hold. But it always had, and the supposed threat became something of a standing joke around town.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Busy Mom VINE VOICE on April 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I don't recall ever hearing much about the Johnstown Flood in 1889 and I am embarrassed to say so. However, I am glad that I had an opportunity to read this beautifully written book. And I was able to get a small glimpse of what the flood was about over 200 years ago.
Kathleen Cambor writes with prose on a select few characters whose lives are entertwined with the Club and Johnstown. She also writes with passion ~~ diviluging subtle sides to the rich men involved in this tragedy as well as men who protested against the building of the lake which ended up overflowing and killing almost 2,000 people during a Memorial Day rainstorm. There is Nora, the daughter of one of the lawyers who protested for the repairs on the dam ~~ whose life became entangled with Daniel Fallon, who lost his whole family in the flood. There is Andrew Mellon pining away for his dead financee; Andrew Carnegie entrapped by his mother's rule; Henry Clay Frick whose main concern is his comfort and prosperity. Cambor brings them all to life within this novel.
If you are a fan of historical fiction like I am ~~ I highly recommend reading this book. It will spark an interest in a tragedy that happened long ago and it was a tragedy that could have been prevented ~~ if men weren't so obstinate in denying that there was a problem. Even today, one cannot still imagine the depth of human lives lost ~~ it's too much to comprehend. But Cambor gave some of the victims voices in which they could share their lives, dreams, goals and aspirations. You can hear their voices haunting you as you read this book.
I think this is a must-read. It's not slow-paced like I feared ~~ it was very moving and the story sweeps you along with the voices and soon, you realize the tragedy is not just in the fact that the dam failed ~~ but in the fact that men simply don't care.
4-6-02
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