Review

In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden

by Kathleen Cambor

Read an Excerpt

The
great reward in reading historical fiction is that black and white
events are brought back into full color. In straight historical
texts, one reads of a tragedy that happened long ago and sees the
facts, tallies the figures. But the full scope of the event, "the
intimacies disturbed, the individual lives altered," does not
register. On Memorial Day, 1889, the South Fork dam in the
Allegheny Mountains near Pittsburgh burst and claimed 2,209 lives
in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In her novel, Kathleen Cambor
re-imagines the event, the people involved, and the ways in which
it forever altered their lives.
Cambor creates a great tapestry of characters, following the
thread of each of their personal tales until they together weave a
whole that is the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Her
technique of jumping back and forth between storylines that unfold
over many years can sometimes be confusing, but we become invested
in the characters as we get to know them --- especially as we are
armed with the knowledge of the coming flood.
The
South Fork dam created a lake for a private hunting and fishing
club whose members included Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, and
Andrew Carnegie. We become voyeurs into the private lives of these
men, how they came to be who they were, what their motivations
were. Perhaps the novel's most poignant tale is that of Andrew
Mellon and his terminally ill fiancee, Laura. It is in describing
their fragile, doomed relationship that Cambor's poetic voice is at
its finest. When Laura asks Andrew to sing for her at her deathbed,
he complies; and we are told, "Of all the things he would miss
about her he knew he would miss this most 'her ability to surprise
him. To call forth from him capacities he never knew he had.'"
Mellon's closest friend is the cold and reserved Henry Frick, and
by describing them in their youth, Cambor provides insight into how
these very different men could have remained lifelong
friends.
But
the stories told here are not only those of the famous club
members. Cambor goes into great detail describing the various
people who lived in Johnstown, the town ultimately destroyed by the
flood. We learn of Dr. Strayer, who fled from Chicago to Johnstown
after losing his license to practice medicine, and his daughter
Julia, whose mettle is only truly tested when she loses two of her
own children to illness. Then there is the librarian, Grace, with a
hidden past and a hidden love. In subtle ways, Cambor shows us how
unique everyone is, how every life lost is an entire world blacked
out.
Central to the novel is Nora, a young girl when her family
joins South Fork, who grows into a young woman by the time of the
dam break. It is Nora who connects the town with the club, through
her slow and secret relationship with Daniel, the son of a
Johnstown workingman and a political activist. When the dam --- "an
essentially needless structure built for the vanity of the wealthy
club members" --- breaks, Nora is forced to see herself through
Daniel's eyes as deserving of blame simply because she is a club
member. Nora is a fascinating character. As a young girl she is
constantly defying her status-conscious mother, and each summer at
South Fork her passion for nature and inquisitive mind grow
stronger. One wishes that the stories of Nora and other well-drawn
characters could be expanded upon.
IN
SUNLIGHT, IN A BEAUTIFUL GARDEN brings immediacy to the Johnstown
flood by vividly creating a host of characters as they might have
experienced it. Ultimately, one puts down the novel with a sense of
how much of a historical event is usually lost in the missing
details.

 

Reviewed by Sara Leopold on January 22, 2011

In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden
by Kathleen Cambor

  • Publication Date: January 15, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374165378
  • ISBN-13: 9780374165376