Fiction: Novel: Historical Fiction
Gist: A young woman grows to maturity in Niagara Falls during and after World War I. She endures loss in many forms, testing her faith and her strength. Based loosely on real life events.
This is the story of Bess Heath, a young woman coming of age in Niagara Falls during World War I. Her family struggles and failings are rendered in exquisite prose, showcasing the female point of view in a way few novelists have achieved. Bess is pulled away from the expectations of her society and her family toward something she sense is more authentic, even amid a staggering amount of pain and loss.
Tom Cole is at the heart of Bess’s fascination, and the mechanics of their relationship are beautifully and poignantly told through every phase, from their meeting to the very end. Bess’s point of view is also elucidated very well, but Tom remains mostly a predictable character. He is carved out of some mythical essence of nature/spirit man and the romantic notion of man versus the corrupting influences of modern progress. All we see of his personality is the true but flat view of the strong, silent male, handsome and attractive to the sheltered young woman. Cathy Buchanan has set out to tell us a mythical tale, reinforced witha grand setting with natural beauty that is awe inspiring, and told in a man who helps change the central character and helps her find herself. But we never get to see Tom as a human being, and while Buchanan shows us that she can write beautifully about sex, heroic rescues,and the emotions of war and battle, these pieces are not strung together into a believable male character.
It isn’t just Buchanan though; this seems to be a theme in novels of the last few years: a strong female voice, descriptively beautiful that illuminates the female mind. These novels have created great role models for women, except that none of them seem to understand (or care to) what masculinity is all about. They delight in writing graphic scenes of physical sex that don’t empower either person and only reinforce the concept that the men are in the story as an object, a set dressing. If these novels could give more than just glimpses of the male characters as real, and more importantly as connecting to the female characters and the readers in more than a romance novel way, the current crop of novels would be truly great. Without that, they remain entertaining escapist works that can appeal to unfulfilled women.
The novel has themes of environmentalism, war, and human greed woven into a family tale in a way that is quite commendable. The historic inspiration of the story is full of possibility, and yet the author’s notes at the end of the novel seem to invite questions as to why she chose to leave out or include certain events. It si as if she was trying to balance the outrageous, over the top, mythical aspects of the story with a more personal, psychological exploration, and it would perhaps have been better to focus more solely on one aspect or the other.