Customer Reviews: In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden
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on January 17, 2001
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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on January 23, 2001
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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on January 26, 2001
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.
Many residents of Johnstown knew of the terrible condition of the dam, as did some of the visitors, but their attempts to draw attention to the problems and the potential for disaster were in vain. It appears that the people who lived in the area just assumed that those of privilege and wealth took good care of the property, very much an assumption of "noblesse oblige" which never really happened.
The author makes it clear that those of wealth, the patrons of the club, were the "bad guys" who had no interest in the people who lived below the dam....they were only concerned with the little world they had created in the mountains. They had bought the abandoned reservoir, minimally repaired the old dam, dangerously raised the lake level, and built cottages and a clubhouse in their secretive retreat. There was no question about the shoddy condition of the dam, but no successful lawsuits were ever brought against club members for its failure and the resulting deaths.
Cambor manages to bring these people and the fictional town residents to life by relating their personal histories like one would peel back the layers of an onion...slowly and cautiously, revealing parts of their pasts in succeeding chapters. As a reader, one comes to really care about these people and what happens to them-- Frank Fallon, a Civil War veteran, and his family; James Talbot, an attorney for the club, who visits yearly with his wife and daughter; Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, leading industrialists of the era; and many other residents of this doomed area.
She also manages to make the dam itself one of the characters in this book, describing it as a "great, organic giant....fed by mountain springs and streams that coursed through layers of the earth like arteries through limbs."
The words of the title come from haunting and foreboding lines in a Maeterlinck play "I have been watching you: you were there, unconcerned perhaps, but with the strange distraught air of someone forever expecting a great misfortune, in sunlight, in a beautiful garden."
All in all, despite knowing the outcome, I would recommend this book for its wonderful writing and style, and its glimpse into history.
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VINE VOICEon April 6, 2002
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.
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on March 12, 2001
This is a book to savor, a touching romance overcast by the looming disaster of the Johnstown flood, so beautifully written that the characters remain in the mind long after the pages are closed. Kathleen Cambor peeks into the lives of the rich and famous industrialists of the late 1800's - Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Henry Clay Frick - all members of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. This summer retreat for the wealthy was created by re-building the South Fork dam. There were questions about the dam's stability from the beginnings of the project, however these were swept aside due to the importance of the club's members. The wealthy members do not give a thought to the people down below in Johnstown as they enjoy the pleasures of an idyllic locale.
Ms. Cambor also touchingly re-creates the lives of those living in the doomed city of Johnstown. Some few will survive the flood which took the lives of 2200 and was the worst industrial tragedy of its time. Although the book climaxes predictably with the flood, there are surprises in the aftermath.
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on July 21, 2001
After the achingly beautiful and heartfelt "The Book of Mercy," Kathleen Cambor has thrust "In Sunlight in a Beautiful Garden " on us. I would guess that the idea of "novelizing" an actual event seemed like a good one to Cambor but in her hands this effort falls flat even though there are some beautifully written passages as in Julia's thoughts after the death of 2 of her children: "..the charm, the tenderness, the wit she'd always counted on, that her mother always said were part of her good character, had disappeared like so much smoke. She was left hollowed, fractured, parched." What I'm saying is that Kathleen Cambor is a fine writer but her talents are not suited to this particular subject. What happens is, because there is so much exposition needed to propell this story, that Cambor's talent is squandered. "In the Sunlight in a Beautiful Garden" is a noble failure but a failure nonetheless.
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on February 22, 2001
The wonderful thing about the book is that although we know how, and with what event, it will end, that ending comes as both a surprise and a climax. And almost an afterthought. Cambor has deftly interwoven a historian's concern for details and research (and an accurate portrayal of the historical figures who were members of the club) with a novelist's ability to create fictional characters out of whole cloth. We become interested in their lives, and we wonder (here is the suspenseful part) exactly who will live and who will die in the predictable climax. In addition, Cambor take's a poet's delight in crafting beautiful sentences. I couldn't put the book down, but neither did I want it to end.
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on April 30, 2002
Late in the nineteenth century, an earthen dam dissolves under a torrential Memorial Day deluge; the resultant seventy-foot wave of water, indifferent as to what it would efface, destroys much of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Kathleen Cambor's brilliant "In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden" succeeds on numerous levels in providing physical, sociological and psyhcological understandings of this catastrophy cavalierly caused by the greed, arrogance and brutal indifference of America's new industrial titans, the very captains of industry revered in the heady capitalistic period following the Civil War. Written with uncommon precision, compassion and insight, the novel completely captures the reader's imagination, trasporting one to Johnstown, an industrial city that houses a steel factory that devours its workers, and an aristrocratic summer resort, home of Pittsburgh's wealthy seeking escape from the inferno-like conditions of that steel city. Ms. Cambor's characters are fully realized people; their conflicts express universal themes. The writing is unfailing in its descriptions of the setting; eloquent and soaring in places, the novel is evidence of a writer who truly works for her readers.
There can be no mistaking the author's anger at the appalling indifference and disdain the wealthy plutocrats express towards the working men and women of Johnstown. Safely ensconced in the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, eerily icy men such as Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon enjoy the trappings of summer idylls while maintaining an absolute indifference to the consequences of their ease. The wealthy who summer at the club, with few exceptions, are symbolically as corrupt and insubstantial as the dam which provides the artificial lake around which their affairs are planned. Cambor captures the evil of social invisbility persuasively; one of the hidden delights of "In Sunlight..." is its subtle class consciousness and bitter recognition that even when "natural" disasters strike, the poor invariably get hit harder.
As cogent as Ms. Cambor's sociological observations are, her psychological explorations are even more profound. In parallel stories, "In Sunlight..." examines the causes and consequences of dissolving marriages. Frank and Julia Fallon bring divergent backgrounds to their union, and the catastrophic stresses wrought by a diptheria outbreak (exquisitely detailed through the eyes of the distraught Julia) led to a slow, painful loss of love and connection. James and Evelyn Talbot contrast vividly. Repressed and lonely, aggressive in their pursuit of status, their marriage disintegrates as the husband discovers conscience. That their offspring, the proud, inquisitive and introspective Daniel and the quietly inisitent Nora become attracted to each other is one of the delights of the novel.
Delicate, compelling and lyrical, "In Sunlight..." firmly establishes Kathleen Cambor's reputation. This work is nothing less than astounding.
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on August 14, 2001
Before I get to the particulars of this novel I just want to say how much Kathleen Cambor's book touched me. I found that I could not put it down. I knew before I started to read it that it was doomed in terms of the way it would end. There would simply be no happy fairytale ending for any of the characters in it, whether they were the rich who congregated at the club, or the poor who lead fairly desperate lives below. However, in hopes of perhaps coming to grips with some of the history of this tragic event I worthy of my time and effort. On reflection I guess I felt like someone who picks up a book about passengers on the unsinkable TITANIC.....hoping perhaps that this time the ship will somehow miraculously stay afloat. From the very start the reader is drawn into both worlds, the robber barons and their wealth, and the families who are just trying to get on below in the valley. We come to know the Fallons, many of the wealthy including Frick and Carnegie, and the woman who left all wealth behind because she needed desperately to find a life for herself, Grace Macintyre, the town librarian. How the club affects all these lives is interesting, but the real value of the book is how it draws us in and keeps our attention on their lives as they draw nearer and nearer to the disaster that awaits them. I was tempted many times to just flip ahead and find out what happened to them all at the end, knowing that none of them would survive the disaster, even if they walked away. One of the more touching parts of the character development was the daughter of the lawyer, Nora Talbot, who embodied innocence and at the same time the essence of entitlement, that those below saw as the reason for the disaster. It is a haunting book. It fully deserves the accolades it has received to date.
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on January 3, 2012
I grew up in Pittsburgh which makes the Johnstown flood local (enough) history. Oddly, though, I never knew much about it, beyond it was a really big flood. A lot of water, people died, move on to the next page in the history book. This is embarrassing to admit, in a way, because I am such a history nerd - but this was just not an event I knew much about. I blame an adolescent disregard for other people's tragedy along with the general sterilization of high school history - to understand the entire thing it turns out you need to understand some pretty ugly dirt about some pretty big Pittsburgh figures. We learned about the steel mills, but for whatever reason, we didn't really learn about this.

I moved out West for 6 years after college and at some point, coming back to visit family, I came across this in an airport bookstore. The title caught my eye, the cover picture caught my eye, I bought it... and read it... and re-read it... It was an amazing book. I can't tell you what the experience would be like for a non-native to the area. I am unable to step outside of my own skin and pretend I don't have the attachment that I do. A huge thing for me, living on the west coast, was just the feeling of home that many southwestern Pennsylvania words evoked in me. Conemaugh, Cambria, Allegheny. Pittsburghers are odd birds that don't always transplant well and that was a HUGE part of this book for me, words that reminded me of where I was from. I know this is not going to apply to many people reading this review, but it will apply to some, and it plays into why I loved this book. I think if you are local to the region, that will play a part for you as well.

Beyond that - I just never knew. And if I weren't from the area, maybe I wouldn't care as much. But I had no idea how human selfishness and greed played into the flood happening in the first place - I assumed it was a natural event. I had no idea how big names from Pittsburgh that many consider to be so benevolent played a role in it - though I do know other ways in which those particular Pittsburghers trampled on the lower class, so it was both surprising and not surprising. And I had no idea just HOW horrific the event truly was. This book paints a very clear picture.

This book is historical fiction, but it still rings very true. I later read the McCollough book, expecting to find this, that, and the other thing had been stretched and not really as it was presented, but it really rings very true. It put a very human face on an unbelievable tragedy. A few sex scenes that might make it not the most suited for a high school reading requirement, by some people's standards, but something I wish I had read and understood long before my mid-20s. Definitely ranks up there with "Out of this Furnace" to give you a human perspective of the region's history.
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