Magazine | June 23, 2014, Issue

The Great Flood

The Johnstown Girls, by Kathleen George (Pittsburgh, 348 pp., $24.95)

On May 31 of this year, the often-flooded city of Johnstown, Pa., marked the 125th anniversary of the Great Flood of 1889. Five hundred more people died that day (more than 2,200 out of a city of 29,000) than died in the horrific Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There were more civilian deaths in Johnstown that day than in any American disaster except 9/11.

Whole families were wiped out in minutes. Once darkness fell, many bodies were consumed when debris piled up at the Stone Bridge burst into flame. In the next days, bodies — many never to be identified — lay in temporary morgues all along the flood’s path. More than 2,000 coffins were needed immediately. Hundreds of unidentified corpses now lie buried in neat rows in Grandview Cemetery high up on Westmont Hill overlooking the flood plain.

Ever since I was seven years old, I have been collecting books and articles on the Great Flood, hoping to write the full account myself. David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood (1968) was so brilliant that it rendered my own ambition otiose. Now for a second time: A novel has appeared far better than the one I have been working on (an imagined first-person account) for the last 15 years.

Kathleen George, a Johnstown girl herself, is a professor of drama and creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, and a successful detective novelist several times over. Here she has figured out an extremely imaginative way to tell the story both of the flood and of the wreckage it left in thousands of individual lives. She does it through the tense story of the reuniting, after a hundred years, of two twins pulled apart by the 40-foot-high, constantly tumbling-over floodwaters.

One of the girls went missing, and everyone else thought that she had to be dead; but her twin sister, Ellen, knew that her sister was still living — how could that part of herself not be alive? But where could she be?

The story of these twins has been known since the days after the flood, when eyewitnesses came forward and newspapermen from New York interviewed the lone survivor. The two were being swept along on a mattress atop the roiling waters, until it hit smack against a floating house.

According to the long-accepted story, the mattress and the cart into which it had been rammed lodged against the house for a moment while an older cousin saved himself, then pulled one of the three-year-olds through an open window. Then churning waters tore away the other little girl, who was wailing pitifully.

This brisk novel begins with two intrepid reporters from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette arriving in Johnstown in 1989 to do a feature for the 100th anniversary. The older reporter is the feature writer, Ben Bragdon, who has some time earlier been kicked out of his home by his wife with a blurted-out “You disgust me!” The younger journalist, Nina Collins, 27, is along as a guide, for she knows Johnstown and the flood story and has prepared the way.

Nina is also along as the loving new mistress to a not-yet-divorced older man. The hold of Ben’s magnetism over her is beautifully rendered. She and Ben slip into the Johnstown Holiday Inn to make love the day before Nina tells her mother that she will arrive. Mother knows nothing of Ben — and will not approve. Nina has also arranged a trip to the South Fork Dam that afternoon, and a 14-mile drive down the route the flood took before it burst out of the narrow valley onto Johnstown.

The next morning Ben is to interview the surviving twin, Ellen Emerson, who has been brought to his attention by Nina. He discovers that Ellen, walker and all, is now a very alert 103. Brilliant since birth, Ellen was sent on a scholarship to New York University. She became an editor at a well-respected book-publishing house, where she slowly became mistress to the publisher. The two of them handled the affair with considerable dignity and mutual consideration, until Ellen began to discern the true relation of her lover to his wife, and quietly went back to Johnstown. There she became one of the best teachers Johnstown ever had — perfectionist, loving, and inspiring to three generations of students.

Ellen and a favorite student of hers, Ruth, a black woman utterly dedicated to caring for her best teacher ever, are setting the table for a lovely lunch with the visiting journalist. On every big anniversary, journalists come into town, seeking an easy story with “the last survivor,” and every time her story has remained invariant. Ben has been told by his editor to come back from Johnstown with “something new.”

Luckily for him, coals have been burning in Ellen’s chest for many decades. So, just before Ben arrives, she decides that 100 years of respecting a family secret is long enough. If she trusts the reporter, she will at last tell all.

Ellen does like the polite and considerate Ben, and she looks him in the eye and says that for years she has been lying to reporters . . . well, not telling the whole truth. And now she wants to do it, and back it up with written proof. Decades ago, she was threatened by her older cousin, who slinked back into town and frightened the child that she must never tell: She must protect her family.

The long-hidden truth is that the older cousin, when the mattress lodged against the floating house, has kicked her father back into the angry water to his death, saved himself, then pulled Ellen up, but could not bring himself to make an attempt to save her little sister even while there was still a chance. Ellen cannot forget Mary’s wails.

This novel is essentially about the character of the people of Johnstown, still today. Cloudbursts lasting for days brought new floods in 1936 — when waters climbed nearly as high as in 1889, but with nowhere near the fury of the 20 million tons of water from the bursting dam. In 1977, days of rain, nearly a foot in one day alone, overwhelmed Johnstown again.

Down all these years, the hometown novelist wants to show what Johnstown girls are like — what her mother, and Ellen, and everyone else she knew and loved, were like. And she nails it. For her, here is what defines Johnstown (in my summary): Work. Work. Work. Persistence. Love. Sacrifice. Do not ever be surprised at how painful life is. Never, never panic. Hold steady. And: We still have a chance — throw that “Hail Mary”! Fling it as far as you can.

Even Ms. George’s heroine, Nina, exemplifies the type. She discerns early enough that Ben’s wife, despite her previous ugly behavior, wants a second chance, and Nina insists that Ben give it to her (maybe only for the sake of Ben’s two boys). Nina will not accept a Ben divided, only whole. He must give his wife the six-week chance she wants. Otherwise how will any of them ever know?

And at the end, while Ben is on a last-ditch weeklong retreat with Amanda and unreachable, an incredible break comes Nina’s way. I will not reveal the plot twists; suffice it to say, this book has one of the most joyous endings I have ever experienced.

– Mr. Novak, a Templeton Prize winner, is the author of two novels and many other books, and is currently a distinguished visiting professor at Ave Maria University in Florida. He delivered the keynote address at the 125th-anniversary event in Johnstown this May 31.

Michael Novak — Michael Novak is Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat. The author of more than twenty-five books on the philosophy and theology of culture, Novak is most widely known for his ...

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