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An Elegantly Crafted Love Story Set in Post-Civil War America In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden tells of a bittersweet romance set against the backdrop of the greatest industrial disaster in American history: the construction and subsequent collapse in 1889 of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, dam. It was a tragedy that cost 2,200 lives, implicated some of the most illustrious financiers of the day - Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon - whose carelessness contributed to the disaster, and irreparably changed the lives of those who survived it. This is the story of these men and of the families who lived in the shadow of the dam: the daughter of the lawyer who filed the charter for an exclusive club on the shore of the artificially created lake; the Quaker steel mill owner who tried to stop the dam's construction; a librarian, escaping to a bustling mountain city from a loveless life in Boston; a young man determined to expose and undermine the greed and carelessness that shaped the last years of the nineteenth century. A cautionary tale for our new century, In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden is a story of youthful promise and devastating loss, of power and its misuse, and of greed and the philanthropy that is too often a guilty by-product.
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From the very start, we know that many of the characters in Kathleen Cambor's haunting first novel will die before it's over. This lends a sepia-toned dignity to what is already a fairly somber tale. In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden tells the story of the Johnstown flood of 1889, in which over 2,000 people--mostly working folk, who had no say in the erection of the ill-considered South Fork dam--lost their lives. The author has enlisted a large cast, including real-life plutocrats Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. But her focus remains on such fictional characters as Frank Fallon, a Civil War veteran enjoying a brief, platonic affair with the town librarian; his son Daniel, a labor organizer; and Nora Talbot, the science-minded daughter of a middle-class lawyer who comes to believe that the dam, built to create an upper-crust aquatic playground, is in danger of flooding the town below.
Cambor excels at depicting both the minor joys and the major tragedies in her characters' lives. Frank Fallon and his wife Julia, for example, have lost both of their children to diphtheria:
It meant something to Julia to be the one to wash the bodies before the undertaker came. To leave Caroline's sickbed long enough to tend to her two younger children. To fill the basin with water warmed by the wood stove, to smooth the hair, to touch and trace their flesh one last time, memorizing them again, as she had right after she had birthed them. Touching toes, chin, the curled cusp of ear, the rounded mound of cheek, the dips and promontories of their supple spines. Frank couldn't bring himself to watch.Devotees of the historical novel will warm to Cambor's judicious use of period detail and her exacting prose, but may wish she had placed less emphasis on foreshadowing. We are told one too many times that the privileged men who built the dam had no interest in its structure or safety: "Someone should have been watching." On the other hand, Cambor has the good narrative sense to confine the flood itself and its horrific aftermath to the final pages of the book. There we are also given a glimpse of Nora Talbot in later life, marked by her youthful love affair with Daniel and by the waters that were--in every sense of the phrase--to part them. --Regina Marler About the Author:
Kathleen Cambor is a PEN/Faulkner nominee and author of The Book of Mercy (1996). She is the director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston and lives in Houston with her husband.
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