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The Age of Daredevils Paperback – October 1, 2016
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About the Author
Michael Clarkson is an award-winning investigative and public-service journalist and the author of seven other nonfiction books. He is considered an authority on fear and stress, and he speaks professionally on those topics. He has appeared on many television shows as well as in the Harvey Weinstein documentary Salinger, for his rendezvous with the reclusive author. In the 1970s and ’80s, he was a river man of some repute. Michael and his wife have two sons and two granddaughters and now live in Canada.
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When I caught my first glimpse of the Falls themselves, I was as awe-struck and mesmerized as everyone must be when they look at it. Reduced to a shadow of its former majesty by the construction of hydro-electric dams and surrounded by cheesy, dated tourist traps, it's still a magnificent, awe-inspiring sight.
Having seen it, I can understand how the Hill family of Niagara Falls, Ontario became obsessed with the river. For the first half of the 20th century, the family of William "Red" Hill, Sr. was known for challenging the Falls, but that's only a small part of the story. "Red" Hill wasn't a professional dare devil, but a true River Rat who had a Tom Sawyer-like boyhood on the Niagara River. As a man, he supported his wife and seven children by operating a taxi service, but he also served as an unofficial, unpaid rescuer for anyone in trouble on the river. The story of his starring role in the rescue of two barge workers trapped above the Falls and facing death is one of the most incredible things I've ever read. He was there to save the life of a teenager playing on the frozen river when the ice broke up unexpectedly. He was awarded several medals for his rescue efforts and probably deserved more than he received.
But there were many he couldn't save. A few were dare-devils who took on the Falls and lost, but most were suicides. What is it about the Falls that attracts people whose emotional pain has overwhelmed them? Through the decades, Red (and then his sons) recovered hundreds of bodies from that treacherous stretch of the Niagara. Some were suicides, some were the victims of boating or swimming accidents. And there was a day-old baby recovered in 1926 whose parents never came forward to claim their child. What does it do to a man to witness such tragedies repeatedly?
During Prohibition (which the sensible Canadians skipped) he did a bit of "rum-running" - carrying liquor across the border in a fast boat. I suspect his contributions to bootlegging were as appreciated by U.S. drinkers as his rescue efforts, but he received no medals for them. The Canadian government simply looked the other way.
The lives of Red and Beatrice Hill and their children tell the history of North America from 1900 to the 1950's. Red served in the trenches in WWI. He was shot, gassed, and contracted tuberculosis. After two years in hospitals, he went back to work, supporting his family and serving the people of the river. Two decades later, his son returned from WWII a war hero, but was unable to find work and eventually lost a leg to war injuries. Alcoholism finally claimed the handsome charmer. Big wars affect everyone, but some families pay a higher price than others.
This is the kind of "history" I love - social history. The story of how the decisions of kings and presidents and politicians and tycoons affect those who aren't "deciders." Like most of us, the Hill family had only partial control over their lives, but they were people who faced life bravely and with humor and humility. Unlike the thrill-seeking, glory-seeking risk takers who came to the Falls looking for money and fame, Red Hill loved the river and respected its power. When one young son showed a tendency to take foolish risks, Dad took him to the funeral home and showed him the bloated body of a drowned man. A harsh lesson, but the river is unforgiving and Red Hill made sure his children knew it.
Did you know that the first person to "go over Niagara Falls in a barrel" was female? American Annie Taylor was a much-traveled woman who was down on her luck when she got the idea that a barrel ride over the Falls would make her a fortune. Amazingly, she made it, but never got the recognition she deserved. The first man to successfully complete the stunt was a cocky, self-aggrandizing Englishman who carefully billed himself as "The Only Man in the World Who Has Performed the Feat!" No mention of the woman who beat him to it by a decade. Pushy Bobby Leach supported himself well by capitalizing on his stunt, but Mrs. Taylor died in poverty. Did the idea of a woman doing what a man had never done make people nervous or did she simply lack the talent for self-promotion? She certainly exemplified the spunky American woman who was emerging at the beginning of the 20th Century and demanding the vote and other rights. And she wasn't noted for her diplomacy. When asked if a woman with a husband would go over the Falls in a barrel, she replied dryly that if she was married "I probably would have gone over without a barrel." I'm sure many wives chuckled at that remark.
This is the first book I've read by this author and I want to go back for more. He has a wonderful talent for portraying the kind of not-quite-insane-but-definitely-odd people who make the world such an interesting place. Some are likable and some are pitiful and some are obnoxious, but they're just strange enough to keep the rest of us entertained. According to a Niagara Falls website, 15 people have attempted to go over the Falls in a barrel or other enclosed vessel. Ten survived the attempt. Red Hill dreamed all his life of being the first Canadian to succeed, but war and economic depressions and family responsibilities intervened. It was his second son William, Jr. who made the attempt in 1951. Did he make it? You'll have to read the book.
A wise man once said that the only thing inevitable in life is change. The first half of the 20th Century saw more dramatic changes and social upheavals than most of human history. Those changes shaped the lives of the people who lived by the Falls and those who came briefly looking for money or fame. Those changes even shaped the river itself, as the hydro-electric dams controlled the flow of water. But Niagara Falls will never be completely tamed. It was there when man appeared on earth and it will be there when we're only a memory.
I found the stories of the many daredevils and attempted stunts to be fascinating. They risked their lives for fame and glory. The story makes me want to travel to Niagara to see for myself the places mentioned and how intense the falls, whirlpool, and rapids are.
I rated the story 4 out of 5 because the writing style is often weird. At times it’s written like a story with thoughts and feelings mentioned. At other times it’s written like a newspaper article with quotes from people and specific sources cited. If that bothers you this book is not for you. I, however, found the story of the Hills to be compelling enough to move beyond that.
I read this story as my Amazon Prime read for the month.
It may be truth, and it may be fiction. It's certainly as close to truth as fiction allows.
It is written in the spare, unadorned style of a journalist. It has few words one would look up to clarify. It is straightforward.
It tells a long tale of the men who came to the Falls -- Niagara, that is -- to risk calamity. Many are the glories of those who made it, and many are the tragedies of those who did not. At the story's center are the Hills, who rode the rapids and tried the falls, rescued others from watery graves and fished out others who found them.
I fear that there were once such men -- not just in barrels and rubber balls but in race cars, airplanes, rockets, etc. -- who would do such things, but my fear is even greater that they no longer exist.
Having been totally awed at the indescribable size, incredible magnificence and unbelievable power of these waters, seeing them in person, that experience really made this book come to life. I couldn't help but be awed once again (and scared out of my wits!) by these brave men I call river rats. They loved these waters as no others, having been born and raised nearby - the river & its falls was in their blood. Amazing.