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
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.)
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