In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden is the story of a bittersweet romance set against the backdrop of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood a tragedy that cost some 2,200 lives when the South Fork Dam burst on Memorial Day weekend, 1889. The dam was the site of a gentlemen's club that attracted some of the wealthiest industrialists of the day Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, and Andrew Carnegie and served as a summertime idyll for the families of the rich. In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden imagines the lives that were lived, lost, and irreparably changed by a tragedy that could have been averted.
About the Author
Kathleen Cambor is the author of The Book of Mercy, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize and was awarded the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Excellence in Fiction by an American Woman. For her work on In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden, she was awarded the 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship. From 1997 until the end of 2000, she directed the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston. She is at work on her third novel and lives with her husband in Houston, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
Memorial Day, 1889
"Nature's law is that all things change and turn, and pass away ..."
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book XII, Number 21
Frank Fallon lay awake after a night of dozing, waking, dozing again. A night of restlessness. A night of decisions.
Each of the two bedroom windows of his house on Vine Street was opened a crack, just enough to let in the first spring air. May nights in the mountains. Air with a freshness to it. As if, finally, it really was going to bring a change of seasons. As if it might bring rain.
Frank's hands were clasped behind his head, his eyes long grown accustomed to the silver-blue darkness. Eight years in this house, he knew it well: the way the floorboard creaked on the third stair, the nighttime sound of brick-and-plaster sighing and settling into itself. There was a porch and parlor, three good-sized bedrooms, a bay window in the dining room. A sycamore tree stood grandly in the back yard, bringing welcome shade in the summer. Wayward branches touched the house possessively. Downstairs, Frank knew, the pies Julia made at midnight sat on the kitchen table, and fat lemons filled a glass bowl, waiting to be squeezed. The iron skillet had already been placed on the stovetop, and on its seasoned surface chicken would be fried as soon as dawn broke, so it had time to cool before the parade and picnic. It seemed an odd thing to him, the idea of picnicking at the cemetery, an old rough blanket spread across the graves.
"But that'sexactly the point," Julia always reminded him. Memorial Day, she said. A day for being with them, for remembering the dead.
As if anything about Frank's life allowed ham to forget.
From downstairs he heard the sound of the piano. Julia, restless too, trying to ease herself, to pass the night by playing. It was one of the first things he had given her, four years after they were married. He knew that she had had one as a girl in Illinois, a rosewood Chickering, a stylish square piano with intricately carved legs and scrolled lyres. So for four years he'd saved money in a sock. Three days a week he gave up his stop at California Tom's on Market Street, gave up the shot of whiskey that cut so cleanly through the phlegm and grit that always clogged his throat at the end of his shift. For four years, three days a week, he gave up the quick camaraderie with friends, the talk that was impossible on the mill floor, where your very life depended on concentration, focus, where the screech of the Bessemer blow, the wild vibration of machinery drowned out every other sound. Finally, $137 accumulated in the sock. In 1869 it had felt like a small fortune.
The piano was a Fischer upright, used, old already when he bought it. The ivory of the keys had aged to a lineny yellow, and spidery cracks marred most of them, as if a small, light-footed bird had left its footprints as it practiced avian scales. But what they found was that the instrument's age, its years of use, had given it an organic, mellow tone. John Schrader, who sold furniture on Clinton Street, came once a year with his pitch pipe and his small felt sack of tools to keep it tuned. The sound of it, and the image that came to Frank's mind as he lay abed and listenedof Julia sitting on the round stool, leaning earnestly into the keys, eyes closed to better feel the melodystill had a power over him. After all this time. After everything that had happened.
Frank Fallon was fifty-one years old. And he planned to march, as he did every year, with the Grand Army Veterans. His uniform from the war was folded on a chair beside the bed. The 113th Pennsylvania. He'd retrieved it from the attic trunk the night before, and when he'd taken the jacket by its shoulders and let the careful folds fall from it, he'd thought he could smell Virginia mud on it. Still. Twenty-six years later. There was a tear in the threadbare right pant leg where a Rebel shell had grazed him.
They would begin gathering for the parade at noon. Stores would be closed today, school canceled. Even the iron works was shut down. It cost a lot to let those furnaces sit idle, a rarely heard-of thing.
He did not think much about the war, except on mornings like this when some ritual holiday required it. It had been foggy at Fredericksburg the night before the battle. The picket lines of the Union troops and the Confederates were so close to one another that conversations could be held between sentinels standing guard. It had snowed throughout December, and Frank remembered how cold his ears were, how he kept rubbing at them with his worn wool gloves as he tried to ward off numbness; how he feared the cold, the dimming of cognition and sensation that came with it. At first he thought that the freezing temperature and exhaustion were going to his head, that he was hearing things, when someone with a harmonica started playing "Dixie."
They'd been camped for days, waiting for pontoon bridges to arrive, so they could be placed across the Rappahannock. Around the campfires loose talk flowed easily, full of bravado. Talk about how quickly Fredericksburg would be taken, bets placed on how many weeks would pass before the war ended. Youth and the rightness of their cause had stirred in Frank and in all his Pennsylvania regiment some ennobled sense that God was on their side, a belief that sound planning and foresight had been part of the strategy that had brought them to this place.
As the Union troops moved toward Fredericksburg in mid-December, the townspeople moved out; several thousand Virginians trudged, with the few belongings they had rushed to gatherplucked chickens, bags of flour, Biblespast the enemy marching to displace them. A child had broken rank that day and run from his mother's side to hurl himself at Frank. Yankee filth, his mother screamed.
Behind his closed eyes, in his dark bedroom, Frank imagined flags flying from every house and shop in Johnstown in the late morning. The swoop and drape of buntings hung, the flowers spilling from second-story windows all along the parade route. The columbines and buttercups and piney buds shaped into wreaths by the Women's Relief Corps to be placed on Union soldiers' graves. The Odd Fellows would march this year, as they always did, along with the Hornerstown Drum Corps and the Hussar Band in gold and scarlet. Train after train would bring visitors from Altoona and Somerset with baskets full of flowers. Bonnets would protect pale faces from the sun. He imagined Grace McIntyre among the celebrants, without a hat's protection because she tended not to like the fussiness of hats, or any of the strict and arbitrary demands of women's fashion. He imagined how she'd lookher thin hand arched across her forehead, deflecting the sun's rays. He would have to check himself to keep from going to her.
The parade would begin on Main Street, as it did every year, then continue past Mr. Morrell's house, the Presbyterian church, and Central Park, its cinder paths and benches packed with people. The arched necks of the four stone swans that formed the center fountain of the park would be encircled with apple-blossom garlands. Then the parade would turn south at Bedford and press on toward the Sandy Vale Cemetery to pay tribute to the dead. Heads would be bent and prayers said. Guns would be fired by Union veterans. The shots would echo eerily from hill to hill, as if a distant war were still being waged.
At Fredericksburg, Frank had plugged his fingers in his ears when the Union cannons fired. Two hundred of them, aimed at that unlikely small Virginia town. When he raised his head that day, after the firing ended, all he could see was smoke, as if the world he knew had vanished and smoke had arrived to take its place. His eyes teared and he pressed his kerchief in the wet snow, then held it to his mouth to ease the singe and cut the ashy taste.
A squat stone wall where Lee had massed his artillery to cover all approaches stood at Marye's Heights, at the bottom of a sloped plain. When orders were issued, line after line of Union soldiers advanced across the field, falling in waves, until the snow mixed with grass and mud and became a bloody porridge, black with bodies. Waiting for his turn to go, Frank felt the muck suck at his boots. "Lead with your shoulder," Bill Jones had warned. "It makes for a narrower target. You'll take it in the shoulder instead of the chest." Frank had nodded thanks, the chill of the day drained out of him by then, replaced by a sick, hot fear. The smoke had cleared enough for him to see bayonets flash in the distance, behind the wall, what looked like thousands of them, the wall itself appearing to rise out of the smoke as if produced by the artifice of some magician. We're going to die like dogs charging that wall with all those men and muskets massed behind it, he thought. He bit his lip so hard it bled.
There was a time when Frank would have gotten out of bed, gone down the stairs, Julia's music growing more distinct the closer he got to it. He would have moved behind her, gathered her loose hair from around her shoulders, arranged it neatly, with his big hands, down her back,
Frank heard the squeak of the bedroom door just next to his, the sound of footsteps. "Daniel?" he called out.
The footsteps halted, then changed direction. The door to the bedroom opened. Music, hall light entered as his son did.
"Yes. It's me."
"It's early yet. A day off like this. You should be sleeping."
Daniel shrugged. "And you, too."
Frank swung his legs out from beneath the covers. Sat on the edge of the bed, watching Daniel, lit by the lamp he held, his long shadow wavering at the door frame. Shirtless. Pants riding loosely on his hips. Frank noticed how broad those shoulders had become, the mass and sinew of the muscles in his upper arms.
"Will you march with me today?" Frank asked. "With the Sons of the Grand Army Veterans?"
"Sure I will. I always do. But I don't think I'll go on to the picnic."
"Have you plans, then?"
Daniel hesitated. "Yes, you could say that. I have plans."
Hands on his knees, Frank brought himself to his feet. The moon shone a patch of light on the cool plank floor.
"I was going to miss the picnic, too, but then thought better of it," he said.
Daniel, who'd seemed about to turn and descend the stairs, took a step into the room.
"I'm glad you did. She'd be disappointed," he said.
"She'll be disappointed either way," Frank countered. "I ..." He wanted to tell Daniel something. "I just thought that this year I might want to do things differently." He wished he could say something that would make Daniel understand.
"What is it, Da?" Daniel took another step into the room. He had Frank's curly hair, a sound of worry in his voice. "If it's about the marching, you know I won't miss that. I'll march with you."
He was close enough then for Frank to move toward him, to reach his arm around his shoulder. Frank admired that about himself. The easy way he had of loving. The boy was twenty-three years old, and Frank never tired of touching him.
His only son. He wondered what the day was going to bring. Sorrow, he supposed. Betrayal. He hoped that when it was done, Daniel would find some way to forgive him.
"Yes," he said. "I know you'll march with me."
At Fredericksburg, Frank had heard a hiss and then a fleshy rip before he knew that he had been hit, before the pain seared through his brain, threatening to blind him. Which would have been a better thing, he thought later as he lay through the long night in a field of dead men, taking what warmth their stiffening bodies had to offer, hearing the moans of the wounded as they cried out for their mothers or their wives or water. He remembered how quickly all that blood had spread its color through the mud. The smell of it.
His knee was shattered. But he lived to go on fighting. At Chancellorsville he lost part of an ear and was finally sent home, to the Pennsylvania mountains, to make steel again.
Some would say that it was awful work. That the pay was poor and every day was a danger, but it was, God help him, the world of making, and because of what Frank did, buildings were built, rail was laid, and a son of his could go to a university in Philadelphia. Working night and day, four thousand men had turned a little mountain town into a small metropolis. He defied anyone to tell him he should not be proud of it. He was fifty-one years old, a foreman, and still, after twenty-nine years at it, he and his men dressed for payday. They wore their Sunday clothes on Saturday. Clean shirts, buttoned jackets, starched collars. They'd grown used to 120-degree temperatures on the steel mill floor, used to sweat, but they never grew used to the way those collars grooved their necks. They wore them anyway. And bowler hats, their hair slicked back and clean. As a sign of respect for who they were and what they did. When Daniel goaded him as he sometimes did, about the money and the hours and what he called the exploitation, Frank stopped him, raised his hand against all criticism. Daniel meant well, Frank knew. He'd been radicalized by his time away and only wanted change. But this was his work and Frank would not let his son speak against it. He would not be made ashamed.
Sometimes Frank hated what he did. But the truth was, it was more than he ever thought he'd be. And there was a strange seductive power to it. Those giant furnaces. That liquid iron flowing into molds, which held a white light like no other on earth, as if the heat and power of the sun itself were coursing past his feet, controlled by him, shaped into whatever form he so desired. When he was young, before the war, he imagined being a sailor, he imagined foreign ports, mysterious tongue-twisting languages, and a voyage back to Ireland to see the place where his parents had been born. But war intervened, and instead of going to sea, he went to Anti-etam, where he shot men at point-blank range, pierced his bayonet into the throats of teenaged boys, of children. They killed each other as if they were killing animals. They walked across fields so thickly strewn with corpses that the ground could not be seen, as if the dead men were stepping-stones. He never entered a church again. He imagined, after all he'd done, that he had no place there. He knew too much. He knew what, in their blindness, men could do to one another.
It was May of 1889, the thirtieth. A Thursday.
Frank took the jacket of his uniform from the back of the chair, slipped his arms into it. The blue had hardly faded.
At the Johnstown library, Grace McIntyre awakened with a start from her fitful sleep at her long desk. From the corner of the large room there had come a sudden clap, and her head snapped up at the sound. For a moment she could not place herselfthe darkness disoriented her. Her neck ached, and the arm on which her head had rested tingled and was numb. She pressed fingertips to forehead, focusing, until recognition dawned. She had stayed late the night before to tidy up (or so she told herself), and then stayed on. Unwilling to go home. Hiding out, she said to herself. Trying to clear her head.
Her face bore the crease mark of the blouse sleeve on which her cheek had rested. The seep of nighttime saliva had left a circle of dampness on the blotter on her desk. Her throat felt raw; the fire in the woodstove was down to a few brave embers. The shawl with which she'd draped herself was poor protection from the chill, but she was glad to be there nonetheless, and as she rose to tend the fire, she thought how much of a home this building had become to her. The patrons were like a large surprising family. She could hardly remember her life before she came eight years ago. She could not imagine leaving, starting again. Weeks earlier, she had let herself begin to sleep at the library, either at the desk or curled in one of the reading chairs, as a way of saying a long goodbye, in anticipation of the possibility of leaving. Her bags were packed, just in case, her affairs in order. Notes of apology and farewell written. She had shelved the most recently returned books yesterday with a tender and exquisite care, had replenished the wood box by the stove, polished the frame of the portrait of Daniel J. Morrell, who had gazed on her so steadily and gravely throughout her tenure. And now, she realized, the last thing had been accomplished. The sound that had awakened her had been the mousetrap she had set the night before. The cheese had proven irresistible, the page-nibbling predator had been caught. The books were safe now. She could leave knowing she had done her best and everything was safe.
Just past dawn, and the streets were empty on her brief walk home. Families taking advantage of the holiday were sleeping late, or cooking hearty breakfasts, or freshening up in preparation for the parade. Grace thought she would weave flowers into her hair. Foolish perhaps, the vanity of girlhood in a forty-five-year-old woman, but she would do it anyway. Frank's eyes would find her in the crowd. She wanted to be beautiful for Frank.
In Pittsburgh, in the earliest hours of morning, parades were being organized in several neighborhoods, church services had been scheduled. But for Henry Clay Frick, thirty-nine years old, buntings, picnics, memories of a war fought and friends lost in it were not part of the day's commemorative plans. For him the Civil War was an episode of history, nothing more. He rose early that day, as Frank Fallon had in Johnstown, but not to dress in uniform for marching. Instead, he would make tea, work at his library desk, prepare himself for church, enjoy the holiday luncheon Adelaide had planned, to which Andrew Mellon was invited and Andrew Carnegie was not. Even though Carnegie had just made Frick the chairman of Carnegie Brothers and Co., chief of the largest steel enterprise on earth, things between them were not easy. Frick knew he had been chosen not for his business acumen alone but for his reputation as someone who was unyielding with labor. The perfect business partner for the affable Carnegie. Carnegie, the generous, expansive; Frick, the cold, the dour. A dichotomy, Frick thought, easily enough admired by outsiders who were not on the receiving end of it.
Careful not to awaken Adelaide, he was silent as a thief in his dark house, a house they called Clayton, without the slightest sense of irony. Named for him. Twenty-three rooms of Victorian splendor, three young children, and the modest beginnings of a collection of art and objects. His dressing gown was a lightweight wool, maroon, tailor-made for him. He was vain about such things. Adelaide often teased him about this sartorial indulgence. Who sees you in your dressing gown? she had asked just yesterday, standing next to him at the long mirror in his room. They had watched themselves and the furniture and carpeting behind them in reflection. A tailor had stood just to his right, shown in by one of the several servants. He had come to drape and fit; a sallow-skinned man, mustached, obsequious, a tape measure looped around his neck. Perspiration left a wet ring on his well-starched collar. He clasped his hands together, nodded, and bowed repeatedly, addressing questions of taste, offering expert judgment. Tweed of course, but the imported wool (he shook his head slowly, appreciatively, to show how fine it was, how words failed him as to its quality), there's nothing like it. Frick saw in the tailor's face what he always saw when such men addressed hima certain fear, an eagerness to please. A wish to be consulted, valued, heard. The tailor had draped a length of the recommended fabric across Frick's shoulder. Does Mr. Frick approve? Husband's and wife's eyes met in the mirror. Did Mr. Frick approve?
He wrapped the robe around himself, tied the braided cord.
The clock struck as he descended the stairs, moved through the vestibule, the south hall, the living room.
Such well-proportioned rooms, such lovely objets d'art. He ran his hand lightly over his possessions as he passed them. Proprietary, a little careless. There was a risk in handling a small Ch'ing Dynasty porcelain, a Limoges enamel; if harmed they could not be replaced. His was the pride of ownership; he felt entitled to touch, to be a little casual about them. He loved them, they were like children to him. And like children he thought they should be touched when passed, stroked a little, smiled upon, enjoyed. The few paintings he'd recently acquired were for viewing, for the eyes' delight, and the soul's, of course. They were for solace. He was developing specific tastes, making those tastes known to dealers. He planned, in his collecting, to use discerning judgment. Would each new acquisition fit among the others? Were they representative of a given artist's finest efforts, did they please the eye? He wanted nothing violent, nothing harsh. Sometimes a dealer came to him, insisting that a work was "important," that, for all its frankness in depicting some dark subject, it was an eloquent depiction of a time. Such persuasion never moved him. This was his house. Grim reality was for his other life, his business. He wanted beauty in his home.
Steam rose from the hot tea, morning light filled the Clayton kitchen. Memorial Day, the end of spring, the start of the summer season. In another week there could be sailing at the South Fork lake. Odd, how five or six years earlier he had looked forward to those timesthe lavish dinners in the clubhouse dining room, the horseback rides, the fishing. He felt finished with it now. Bored and beyond its simple pleasures.
A pity, he thought. It was a time when he was still capable of pity.
At every stop along the train route from Philadelphia, flags flew from flagpoles or were draped from depot windows. Each time the locomotive braked, Nora Talbot paused, looked up from the reading she had brought, as if in mute acknowledgment of those who'd died in war. She had lost no one in her life. Such sorrow she could only imagine.
"Meet me," her father had written in a letter, and she had said she would. She had rushed to catch the noon train from Philadelphiatwenty years old, pretty enough, but striking only in the long black braid that arrowed down her back, the mail-pouch satchel slung over her shoulder, worn the way a boy might wear it, worn the way that she imagined Daniel Fallon probably had when he was a young, ardent scholar. Now she was the ardent one: student, scientist, worried daughter, eager lover.
On the train Nora reached into her satchel, drew out papers, pen, her diary. For years now she had taken a journal everywhere with her. The pages were ragged, thumb-worn, the index and third fingers of her right hand stained with ink. Nora, the recordkeeper, the gatherer of facts, of history.
There were times when I thought he loved South Fork more than he loved me.
So she had written once in another diary. The memory came to her sharply, suddenly. She would have been fourteen that summer of 1883. She remembered the day she first told him that his love was a worry to her.
"Not at all," her father, James, had tried to reassure her. "I don't love it more." He and Nora had just gotten off another train, were watching while their things were loaded onto the spring wagon. They'd left Pittsburgh early in the morning, ridden, as they always did, in a Pullman parlor car. She'd sunk happily into the velvet cushion of her seat, crossed her ankles, pressed her gloved hands together in her lap. Her father knew how much she cared and so always saw to it that she sat beside the window. At the insistence of her mother, she had obediently brought handiwork to do, crewel, as well as a little swatch of white-on-white embroidery, but she planned to keep that folded in her needlepointed bag. She had thought perhaps she'd read, so she'd brought Bleak House with her. But she knew it was more likely that she'd just watch the river from the window, press cheek to glass while the downtown buildings, the steel mills, and the tenements they'd spawned all disappeared from view. She'd sit quietly, let her mind roam. Imagine life stories for the men and women who lingered on the platforms of the little towns they lumbered through. A man with just one leg, swinging himself with crutches toward a slowing train. A woman whose face was buried in an unwieldy extravagant bouquet of fuchsia flowers, surrounded by anxious well-wishers, saddened, Nora guessed, by a heart-wrenching adieu.
People believed in the Pennsylvania Railroad, James always said, the way they believed in God. The railroad was the future, it would take men and women across the continent, to Western territories. Nora didn't know much about that, about its power or reputation. She just knew she loved the train. She loved the rainbow-making crystal chandeliers and pressed-tin ceiling, the high, etched transom windows, the porters with their smart brimmed caps and pocket watches that always kept such perfect, honest railroad time. She loved the way the porters offered her a hand when she stepped into her car or stepped down from it, as if she were someone of consequence as, indeed, she planned to be. She loved the little sandwiches they served, but really, there was no end to her list of loving. And primarily she loved being alone with her father. Her mother, Evelyn, would come later, after they'd claimed their clubhouse rooms and gotten settled. Then things would change. Evelyn would bring her Saratoga trunk and evening dresses. She'd bring a list of the other families that would be with them at the club for the first two weeks in August, with a complicated set of checks and dots and numbers ranking them in order of importance. But for the first few days it would be just Nora and her father. They'd take walks together. More than anything, she wanted him to teach her how to sail.
As soon as she had gotten off the train that summer, Nora had rushed to the end of the station platform to look down toward the little town of South Fork. It mattered to her that nothing had changed, every detail was just as she remembered it. Stineman's General Store and Pringle's drugstore stood importantly on Railroad Street. The weather-worn frame houses where the 1,500 townspeople lived still stippled the hillside, rectangles of enduring, subdued color in the smothering forest, a rising sea of green. She wondered what creatures watched her from the underbrush. What deer families had had fawns, what had happened to last summer's vixen and her cubs, the rambling family of raccoons. Nora had been told that a panther had been sighted once, not far from here. One more reason, her mother always said, to stay close to the lake and clubhouse, to stop wandering.
"Careful there." At the platform's edge her father had supervised the transfer of luggage, the loading of the wagon. Trunks, valises, his casting rod and tackle box. His creels and reels. His gun. Everything they'd need for their two-week summer stay.
"Good to see you, Tom," James said, allowing his hand to be pumped eagerly. A greeting for the bucktoothed farm boy who always came to drive them to the lake.
As Nora wandered farther, train and depot noise receded. Coal falling from coal tipple to train car, the hiss of steam gave way to the sounds of country lifemoving water, the raucous cries of birds, the silken shimmy as the wind brushed the serrated leaves of a towering white ash tree. Just down from the depot, with wires threading from it, stood the telegraph tower, a two-story wooden sentry. Nora knew that a Western Union operator was on duty on the second floor, receiving messages, relaying them with the tap of a practiced finger. By that agent's authority, news was spread up and down the railway line. News of delays or trouble on the tracks; news of late-spring flooding. Nora's father had told her that here, in South Fork, the operator was a woman. Nora wished she could meet her. She wanted to find out how it had happened; how, in a world where men did everything, a woman had been allowed to ascend the tower, to learn the secret, wordless code.
"Nora." James's voice again. He waved her toward him. The length of his fly rod, extending from the wagon's bed, looked like a sword flashing in sunlight, the overburdened wagon like the last of a supply train of some ragtag retreating army.
"Come," her father called. "It's time to go."
She was small and pale that July, her wayward, wavy hair tamed into a thick rope-like braid. It was the club's third season, the Talbots' third summer at the lake. She shook her head, brushed her father's hand aside when he reached to help her climb into the wagon.
"I can manage," she had said. She hiked her skirt up, hooked her foot on the toe-shaped ring, and, with a push, was up and in. She called the horses by their names. The black horse, Jenny, whinnied; Jock, the bay, swished black flies off his wide rump with his tail. Tom shot her a timid sidelong glance, tipped his straw hat in greeting. Then he clucked at Jock; the wagon jerked, they pulled away.
The clip-clop of the horses' hooves was like a metronome, it made her think of Madame Corsca and Chopin études. Of E minor scales. Of her lesson-dense life at home. The summer had been dry, and dirt stirred by the horses' feet dusted her dark stockings, the hem of her voile dress. South Fork Creek showed itself through the trees, in sudden argent glints, and she could hear the spit and gurgle of it as it smacked the rocks and the fallen limbs that were strewn across it. When she saw Lamb's farm and Lamb's Bridge ahead, she held on to the wagon seat, steadying herself in preparation for the climb. They'd be going up now, through the valley, toward the bottom of the great earth dam.
Her first sight of it each summer stunned her, the way it rose up steeply, suddenly, seemed to grow out of the valley floor. Seventy-two feet high, nine hundred wide, her father said, and she believed him. It was like a pyramid, or the wall of a lost city, something an archaeologist might find. Dirt and rock, tree stumps and rubble. Crevices so deep, so shaded, that even in the summer chunks of winter ice still glinted from within. Manure had been used to reinforce the dam as well, and the rich, organic smell of it mingled with the scent of pine needles, columbine, and mountain laurel, and the grasses that silted the dam's steep, earthen side. The dark faces of spiderwort pocked the surface. Honeysuckle blossomed. Life sprouted from the dam. Nora had closed her eyes and imagined she could hear it breathe.
"Of course you're right in one thing," James had said suddenly. "I do love it." They had been silent since they'd left the station, and she had to think a minute. What was he saying? What was it that he loved?
"I love it hugely," he'd admitted.
She looked up at him. Dark hair, muttonchop whiskers, russet, just beginning to gray; veined cheeks prominent above them; his voice a little louder than it needed to be. "I love it, child, because it's ours, and because it's beautiful. Our land." He squeezed her hand for emphasis. "Our safe retreat." Another squeeze.
The wagon angled as they rose. The horses strained. Sweat sheeted Jock's hindquarters, his muscles flexed and pulled. At the top, the road forked. The horses veered right across the dam's broad crest and paused midway, as was their habit, because they'd learned that everybody wanted to stop there, have a look. To the right, the steep drop down into the tree-filled narrow valley. To the left, the lake.
"Our lake," James had continued, gesturing broadly. A blue jewel, her father called it. Its trembling edges lapped at the fragrant, pine-dense shore. Spruce and black birch also grew in the forest around it, as well as hemlock and hickory, sugar maples so well fed by silt-rich earth that they oozed syrup in the fall when there was no one there to claim, collect it. Except for hunting season, in autumn most of the cottages were closed, the members gone. For them the beauty of the club was the summer, just after spring rains combined with the runoff from the snowy mountains, when wildflowers sprang up through the loamy forest floor. Spiderwort and periwinkles inched toward what little sunlight filtered through the trees and webbed the path that wound round the lake in smoky blue and dusky amethyst, darkly mottled, the color of a bruise. When she was young and dreamed of flying, Nora used to think of how it would have looked from above, the sun-reflecting lake, the purple ring around itas if it had been chosen, marked as a sacred place by Druids or by unknowable, approving gods.
Purple-ringed. Protected. Man-made. And not by ordinary men, she knew, but by men who understood the work of making, shaping, insisting that the world conform to their particular, exacting standards. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon. Henry Phipps. But in Nora's mind, the lake, the dam, the club were all just South Fork, and for two weeks every summer it was her home. It was no Tuxedo Park, was modest, she'd been told, by Newport's standards, but important men were members: a wealthy man's retreat. Her father, a lawyer, was the least of them, but good enough, it had been decided; discreet, trustworthy. Someone who would do.
From the beginning, she had known that she and her family were peripheral, that they existed on the shadowy edges of the other clubmen's favor. They owned no cottage, no private carriage met them at the train to drive them to the club. She had been fourteen years old that summer of her diary-keeping. She spoke French, read Shakespeare and the poems of John Donne. On Pittsburgh's East End, she was schooled with rich men's children. Perfectly, properly schooled. She had a place among them. But she was not rich, nor was she foolish. Each summer from her coach car on the train she saw other trains, coke-carrying, steel-carrying trains; she heard the distant echo of plant whistles from the valley below. She knew as surely they all did that there was other life besides theirs in the mountains, but she kept that knowledge vague and shrouded in some closed-off, unused portion of her mind. Even so, and in spite of her willed ignorance, she sometimes saw hints of what was out there, what might come. Because, as sweet as the wild strawberries tasted, as crystalline the lake, sometimes an acrid, bitter stench invaded paradise, crept up the mountains, fingered its way through the shielding trees. Once when she wandered too far on the solitary walks she favored, dusk overtook her, and with the lights of the clubhouse and the lakeside cottages far behind her, she could see from the dam's high crest that a fierce red glow lit the valley. When the next day she roamed farther down, much farther than she knew she ought to, she saw that the very trees that flourished with such exuberance around her lake were leafless, black, ash-encrusted in the smoke-filled valley. With a fatidic clarity that comes only occasionally and only to the young, she understood that, like the mythic marking of her purple-banded lake, this too was a sign, an omen. A warning that things are not always as they seem, that everything she thought was predictable and certain was ephemeral, passing, and one day the life she knew would change unutterably.
And so it had, but not as completely as Nora had once imagined. The lake remained the light, bright center of her world, and in 1889 it was her Memorial Day destination. There had been trouble in her life the last two years, but she had managed to retain a singular, insistent, optimistic stance. She tried not to think about the changing world as her train rushed toward the South Fork depot. Her focus was tomorrow and the next daythat brief, happy future.
* * *
James Talbot thought of Gettysburg as he did each year on this day of remembrance. He closed his eyes and leaned back into his seat as his train rasped, chugged, and lulled him from Pittsburgh to South Fork. He imagined Abraham Lincoln rising slowly to deliver his address. That creased, pocked face which James's father had so hated. Twenty-five years, James thought as the train rocked around a curve. Was that possible? Had it been so long since the consecration of that graveyard? James wondered if there were names on the hundreds of markers in the cemetery. He could find that out; the information was available, but he liked to speculate instead. Would there be names? Could he find the one he was looking for?
He thought of how empty the clubhouse at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club would be. The summer season not yet begun, the Launching of the Fleet in early June was still in the planning stages. He and Nora would have it almost to themselves. They could sit together on the wide porch that overlooked the lake.
Love was the thing that brought him there, as it had brought him there each of the last eight summers. Loveof cool nights, mountain breezes, of loons and larks and butterflies. But for James, a sense of burden mingled with that love now. His was the guilt of duty neglected.
He wore a small paper American flag pinned to his lapel, the mark of a mourner, of a man who'd lost loved ones to a war.
He had read once that besides the eight thousand men who had been killed at Gettysburg, five thousand horses and mules had died as well. So many dead. And there had been precious little time to bury them. The suffocating July heat, the swarming bluebottle flies, the stench of rotting flesh had made haste imperative. The initial graves were makeshift, shallow. Householders returning to their homes after the fighting had to plant around the half-buried bodies in their fields and gardens.
Gettysburg was so near South Fork, a half day's journey. He wondered why he had never made the trip, for what he had been waiting.
Through the train's smudged window James could see that the sun had already reached its peak and begun its steady slide toward afternoon. Darkening clouds were forming, graying the sky in the far distance. Snapped twigs swirled in the wind raised by the charging locomotive. He guessed it was close to two o'clock; in less than an hour he would be at the South Fork depot. He imagined the little cupola perched jauntily midroof; the brougham, with the horses harnessed to it shooing at the ground, made restless by the electric tinge of rain in the spring air. He envisioned Nora arriving just before he did, standing on the platform, patient as she always was. Waiting for him.
There were things that he should tell her. Not now, not this weekend, but when they returned to the lake in August. In August he would make his long-overdue pilgrimage, and he'd take Nora with him. He'd confide everything.
Yes, this would be the year, he thought. No, promised. Swore. This would be the summer he would make the trip to Gettysburg.
In his room in his parents' house, in the late afternoon, Daniel Fallon placed an extra shirt, two apples, a slicker, and a blanket into a roll that could be tied behind a saddle. Tense with anticipation, he had arranged to let a horse from Snavely's livery in the early morning and had mapped in his mind his fifteen-mile route through the hills and underbrush, over one of the many paths that veined the wooded countryside and led to the lake. He would leave early, allow plenty of time. Today there had been a parade and he and his father had marched in it. Tomorrow he'd see Nora, tomorrow they would meet. Briefly, intensely, as they always did. Hours snatched, confidences exchanged, futures planned and spoken of, without any suggestion, any hint, that their futures might be spent together. Theirs was a relationship lived solely in the fleeting present.
Because they were able to see each other so infrequently, letters, small gifts, tokens had become the touchstones that attached them to each other. His gifts to her included books, flowers, the feather of a bird. For tomorrow's meeting he had purchased a pair of tweezers for her. An instrument of science, an honoring on his part of what she wished to bea naturalist, an entomologist, an explorer of the plant and insect universe. He was the first one to know that secret wish of hers, the first one to witness, to understand, to be ambitious for her. Prior to him, she had been alone, so set apart by her interests and curiosity that she had almost lost sight of who she was and what she wanted. He had reminded her. His notice of her, she told him later, had been unlike any other she had ever known.
He was seventeen when he first saw her, twenty-two when they first spoke. He had hesitated, waited, because he had been afraid that contact would somehow spoil what he felt for her. He who planned to make agitation his life's work, the labor movement his vocation, had been shy when it came to one rare girl. For five years he had watched her rather than risk approaching.
Once he did approach, once he went to her, he found that she would listen, that she could be trusted. Her gifts to him? A pen with which to record his theories about the rights of man; a scarf to wear to union meetings, red wrap of defiance, reminder that she was with him, on his side; a knife with which he might protect himself if he was threatened with violence. She had read in the newspapers about the measures employed to thwart disruptive unions. The knife had surprised him. It made him think that he ought not to underestimate her frankness, her ability to be unflinching. It made him regret that he had not approached her sooner.
What would become of the two of them? He did not know. He knew only that tomorrow he would go to her, that they would be together at the South Fork lake.
Reading Group Guide
Johnstown, Pennsylvania 1889Introduction On May 31, 1889, the unthinkable happened. The dam supporting an artificial lake at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, playground to wealthy and powerful financiers Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon, collapsed. It was one of the greatest disasters in post-Civil War America. Some 2,200 lives were lost in the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood. In the shadow of the Johnstown dam live Frank and Julia Fallon, devastated by the loss of two children; their surviving son, Daniel, a passionate opponent of industrial greed; Grace McIntyre, a newcomer with a secret; and Nora Talbot, a lawyer's daughter, who is both bound to and excluded from the club's society. As Frank and Julia, seemingly incapable of repairing their marriage, look to Grace for solace and friendship, Daniel finds himself inexplicably drawn to Nora, daughter of a wealthy family from Pittsburgh. James, Nora's father, struggles with his conscience after bending the law to file the club's charter and becomes increasingly concerned about the safety of the dam. Meanwhile, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon maneuver to establish themselves as the preeminent financiers of the day, solidifying their alliancesthrough their membership in an elite club in the Allegheny Mountains. At the center of these interwoven stories is an artificial lake, the centerpiece of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, and the dam itself -- an emblem of careless self-interest and the devastating consequences it sows. Discussion Questions
So deeply sheltered and surrounded was the site that it was as if nature's true intent had been to hide the place, to keep men from it, to let the mountains block the light and the trees grow as thick and gnarled as the thorn-dense vines that inundated Sleeping Beauty's castle. Perhaps, some would say, years later, that was central to all that happened. That it was a city that was never meant to be.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When I first started reading this book I will admit to being disappointed because for some reason I thought it was just about the flood and the causes of the flood. After a short while though, the author had drawn me in with this well written story about the families and lives of the people affected by this tragedy. Rich men, Carnegie and Mellon only concerned about their gentleman's club, ignoring warnings from engineers that the dam was very inadequate, showing once again the abuse of power and money. When the flood finally entered the book, it was even more of a shock because now I had connected to many of the characters. Cambor did a wonderful job highlighting the effects of this tragedy on all involved, while also updating the reader on other world events connected with World War II.
It's been on my shelf for years, and I finally read it in conjunction with a visit to the Johnstown Flood Museum. It's a terrific piece of historical fiction which gives a real sense of the time and the Pittsburgh magnates involved (Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon).
The author's research on the people of Johnstown, the "robber barons" of Pittsburgh who created the South Fork club, and the flood itself are evident, there is just too much here. There are numerous superfluous stories and tid bits throughout the book. It also at times is way too modern and unrealistic. And it's slow. However, the parts I liked which account for probably 60% of the book, are good.
I liked the book because of its use of language. The book opens with the day of the flood and takes you character by character through periods of time prior to the aweful day. It focuses very little on the flood itself. In the end, you are left feeling like you want to know more.
This novel has, as its background the Johnstown Pa flood. Although we are introduced to the characters before the event, we, the readers, know & the characters have no idea what is about to happen to them. That is one of the challanges of writing historical fiction. How much can be foreshadowed when the readers are all familiar with the story. And how to make each character special so that the reader will really care what happens to him or her? Kathleen Cambor does a good job with her characters. She also creates a believable setting. As the title suggests, the mountain-top gentlemen's club which failed to maintain its dam, was a beautiful place where the beautiful people at the end of the 19th century gathered. And into that beauty came disaster. Not to the club & its members, but to the residents of the town below.Besides telling a good story, In Sunlight, in a beautiful Garden gives a very down-to-earth example of the regard which the rich & powerful regarded the ordinary people of that time. (And other times, as well)
AFter reading David McCullough's Johnstown Flood, a non-fiction account of this disaster, I was intrigued by Ms. Cambor's In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden. If one wants the facts surrounding the Johnstown flood, McCullough's work serves well. If one is looking for the human side of the events leading up to this event, I recommend this book. I found it moving and well written. I had heard an interview with Ms. Cambor on the Diane Rehm show of the Public Broadcasting System. If I recall correctly, her idea came from a journal her grandmother(a resident of Johnstown) kept about her relationship with a young man associated with the country club frequented by Mellon, Frick, etc.
I found the book quite disappointing. The author gives a very surface view of the lives of the important men of those days, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, and Andrew Carnegie, who to me, were just not that ineresting. I have read enough about them and what they wanted was to build empires and make fortunes. As for the people who lived in Johnstown itself, the workers and their families, the shop keepers...the real people, we never get to find out who they are. You get a taste, but that is all.
Being from the Johnstown area (and NOT a history buff), I was excited to read this, my first encounter with the facts surrounding the 1889 flood. I, too, had trouble keeping up with the characters until about half-way through the book, but when they 'got' me, I was enthralled. I truly loved this book. It was amazing how, through the story, you knew how it would end (and that it would end badly), yet you 'rooted' for the favorite characters (who were NOT perfect people). Definitely a beautiful and romantic story and one that all history buffs, and natives of Johnstown should read.
I couldn't believe that the history of the Johnstown flood could captivate me so. The greedy rich versus the working ironworkers of Johnsontown. I did find the characters a bit hard to sort out at first, but they sorted themselves out and though I knew the 'ending', I found the book fabulous.
Reading this book reminded me of watching 'Titanic'. The tension builds as the story develops with the knowledge of looming disaster. The character development was interesting. It took me until about halfway through to keep the many characters straight and fully grasp the flashback method the author used. However, rather than detracting from the story, it made for an interesting read with depth that might otherwise have needed a much longer book. I will definitely have to read it again now that I have a better grasp of who's who.
This is a great book that focuses on the lives of people in Johnstown, PA in the late 1800s. You become a part of many real life people of this time period. You also learn the parts they played in the tragic flood of Johnstown. This novel weaves non-fictional and fictional characters together in yet another historical tragedy that gives it a 'Titanic' sort of feel. It was non-stop reading and I thoroughly enjoyed it.