Revisiting Niagara Falls: Cathy Marie Buchanan on The Day The Falls Stood Still

A sneak peek at The Next Chapter (02/28/11)

Niagara Falls is one of Canada's natural wonders — and biggest tourist attractions. Millions of people go there each year to marvel at the sheer power of the falls. And along the way, they might stop off at the wax museum, the houses of horror or the casino, just for good measure.

But there was a time, not so long ago, when Niagara Falls was a much quieter place. It was a time before the highrises and the helicopter rides, when crowds gathered to watch daredevils perform often ill-fated stunts.

That's the Niagara Falls featured in Cathy Marie Buchanan's debut novel The Day the Falls Stood Still. It opens on the eve of the First World War, and follows the story of a young woman whose well-to-do family has fallen on hard times.

Buchanan grew up in Niagara Falls in the 1960s, in a neighbourhood that she remembers as looking pretty much like any suburban neighbourhood at the time. She now lives in Toronto, but made her hometown the setting of her first novel. When it came to choosing a time period, though, Buchanan turned back the clock to the days of the legendary rivermen of the early 20th century.

She had spent her childhood hearing of their daring rescues of men and women in and around the Niagara River. One man, in particular, stood out.

William "Red" Hill was the only Canadian in his lifetime to have been awarded four life-saving medals. He hauled 177 bodies out of the river, rescued 29 people and assisted a handful of daredevils. He would become the inspiration for Buchanan's main character.

"It was said he could predict the weather just by listening to the roaring of the Falls," Buchanan told host Shelagh Rogers. "He was also someone who would wake in the middle of the night and know that he would find a body tossing in the rapids the following day."

The community's relationship to the Falls is very different now, as the site has become increasingly commercialized over time. Not only is a portion of the river diverted for hydroelectricity, but a new deal seeks to develop the area that serves as a backdrop to the Falls. Currently, that backdrop consists of seven acres of green space. The new proposal is to build three highrises on the land, one of which will be three times as tall as the Falls. It's something Buchanan is strongly against, and she has become a founding member of an organization fighting the development.

"I absolutely feel that a natural wonder of the world should be able to be viewed with a backdrop of nature rather than highrises," she said.

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