Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Johnstown Girls by Kathleen George, fiction about the 1889 Johnstown Flood, women's lives, and family secrets

“Is a hundred years long enough to keep a secret?”

A novel that mingles past reminiscences with a contemporary storyline, The Johnstown Girls centers on the traumatic flood that devastated the village of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889, killing over 2200 people.

One of the fortunate survivors of the disaster, Ellen Emerson is a spry 103-year-old in the year 1989. Although her parents and brother were lost to the floodwaters, Ellen miraculously stayed alive after a mattress bearing her and her twin sister swept them both to safety. Or so Ellen continues to believe. The siblings were separated in the chaos, and young Mary’s body was never found.

To mark the centennial of the event, Nina Collins and Ben Braddock, two reporters from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, arrive at Ellen’s home to interview her. Ben’s editor wants him to dig up some new angle on her story. The pair succeed in doing so, but the research process takes some unexpected turns.

Ellen and her long, eventful life are the highlights, and the sections recounting her perspective are easily the most riveting. Both natives of Johnstown, Ellen and Nina develop a warm friendship that comes alive on the page. Ellen tells her long-hidden secret to Nina and Ben early on, so it doesn’t drive the plot, but the details on her life as a career woman in big-city and small-town America easily hold readers’ attention. The aspects involving Nina and Ben’s romance just can’t compare, plus it has odd emphases and digressions. There’s an explicit sex scene in the first few pages, when we barely know the characters – why? Do we need to be brought into a marriage counseling session between Ben and his estranged wife? In addition, the story occasionally slips into other viewpoints (like that of Nina’s mother) that don’t feel necessary.

The novel offers a wealth of information for anyone interested in the Johnstown Flood, the circumstances that caused it, and its effect on the region and its residents a century later. Just be prepared to put up with some meanderings and quirks along the way.

The Johnstown Girls was published in paperback by the University of Pittsburgh Press last week ($18.95, 348pp). This is a long overdue review, which I based on a NetGalley copy from 2014, which is when the hardcover edition appeared.

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