Source: Downloaded from Audible (personal purchase)
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.
Before I properly start this review, I wanted to point out that I am posting this today because it is the day after the 127th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood - May 31, 1889 - and I wanted to share something relevant. I also previously reviewed, The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough which is a very good non-fiction account of the Flood, which you can read if you are interested in a factual accounting of the disaster itself. One of these days I will get around to visiting the national memorial and museum. Now back to the review!
This novel was a little bit different from what I expected of it; instead of being acutely focused on the events that transpired during and after the Johnstown Flood, it is a character driven novel based primarily on the lead up to the flood (although the aftermath is considered in lesser detail). While reading the book, I remember thinking that it didn’t feel like a book about a disaster at all, and I have read my fair share; the events of the flood itself come just a few pages prior to the end of the book. Primarily, it’s a story of life in rural/suburban Pennsylvania during a time when real wealth was being complied by the oil, steel, and railroad tycoons, which the everyman toiled, and went on strike, and lived day to day. This is very clearly evoked by the prose of this novel. There is also a thread about growing up and young summer love that twists throughout the plot.
As a reader, you become committed to these characters whose lives are destroyed following the flood, which inevitably occurs in the late pages of the book. These characters represent two essentially distinct groups: those of privilege who enjoy the country club that the South Fork Dam was built to please during the summer months, and the common man living their everyday life in the town below the Dam. The author doesn’t make the wealthy a clear cut bad guy, but she does depict them as careless (which they were) for not being worried about the reports about the safety of the Dam, because it didn’t affect them. I found the storyline relating to those from the town, particularly Frank Fallon and his family, to be more interesting than the laconic life above the Dam because there appeared to be more happening in their lives.
I would have liked more of a resolution to the novel. As the flood occurs so late in the novel, I was looking for more of the aftermath, but what I got was more of a dropped thread. Being that these characters were the focus of the story, rather than the event, I would have liked to have more about the effect on those who did live through it. You don’t need all the grisly details in an emotionally evocative book like this, but I needed a little more than I got. While this book might not have been what I expected going in to it, I did enjoy the experience of reading it.
Also, as a side note, I’m still confused by the title.
James Daniels does a very good job with the narration here. He enunciates very clearly with a comfortable pause between sentences. It doesn’t feel rushed, but his pacing does help to speed up the flow of the narrative that could sometimes feel a little bogged down otherwise. Beyond that, there isn’t much to say about the narration. It wasn’t a particularly memorable performance, but not bad either.
You can listen to a sample of the audiobook below (press the play button):
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Also by Kathleen Cambor:
The Book of Mercy
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