Niagara Falls straddles the divide between two countries. Since it was first discovered by Europeans, it has been a symbol of the untameable new world, inspiring awe, terror, wonder and greed. And like the falls themselves, the personalities of Niagara Falls, New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario have been poetic, violent, daring, powerful. From the hyperbolic missionary who first described the falls in print to the power barons who harnessed the waters to bring in the electrical revolution, it's history full of intrigue and adventure.
I was originally going to read Berton's history of the War of 1812, but a couple of things changed my mind. For one thing, the 1812 history consists of three volumes, and unlike a fictional trilogy I didn't think I could bear to only hear the beginning of the tale. The other is that my beloved and I are heading to New York in November-December, so we'll have a chance to see the Falls first hand. Now, having read Niagara: A History of the Falls, I will have to spend at least a day or two in the town, marvelling at the evidence of all that I've read.
As I mentioned in my last post, I was finding the book slow going. It must seem that I don't spend much time reading, but the truth is I now spend most of my reading time on blogs and online magazines, many covering frivolous topics, though many important ones too. Reading Niagara cover-to-cover felt a bit like reading a magazine column, since it comes in small chunks - bigger than a magazine article, in truth, but still. If I'd had more discipline I would have made sure to read one or more of these every day, in order to keep up the pace.
There are only thirteen chapters, but each is split into three to five "verses"; I call them this because they are only titled in the contents and at the start of each chapter - when you reach them in the text, they're denoted only by a large numeral at the top of the page. Sometimes these cover very different stories under a common theme; at other times, they seem to continue the previous verse more or less directly. The division seemed a bit arbitrary at times, and to be honest I often ignored them.
But enough of all that guff. Is it any good? Oh yes. Yes indeed. Berton has a wonderful prose style; everything is clear, his words flowing like a less turbulent river but still dynamic river - fast when the action is fierce, slower when the narrative turns to more domestic matters. It's only problem is that, being a true history of a place, rather than an event or even a person, it is a collection of short stories whose only true common theme is geography.
The early part of book is a little samey - he starts strong with a geological history of the river and how the falls were created (the first line is the very Biblical "In the beginning was the ice"), and their early "discovery", but the next few chapters are largely tales of Europeans coming and gawking in various ways. Eventually some real characters show up - the first of many celebrity cameos in Charles Dickens, and Frederic Church painting his celebrated landscape of the Falls - but the real narrative seems to arrive with the hucksters and crooks who established the first "civilised" period of Niagara's history.
I couldn't help but think of Deadwood as rival hotel owners fought each other for the right to fleece the hordes of Niagara tourists (William Hearst gets a mention, and Wild Bill Hickok is a later cameo!) - the blatant criminality and colourful setting would certainly make a cracker of an HBO series. From here on the action rarely stops, with the coming of daredevils, bridge builders and - my personal favourites - the scientists. Hydroelectricity came into its own nowhere in quite the way it did at Niagara, and no less a figure than Nicola Tesla arrives to harness the waters. (Tesla also shows up in The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame, a birthday gift from my beloved's parents, and an amusing if derivative mix of facts and psychiatric conjecture about scientists from fiction and history.)
Despite descriptions of the scientists as exploiters, it is clearly the "power magnates" and businessmen who drive the exploitation of the river. Surprisingly there seemed little evidence in the book to suggest that the use of the Falls for generating electricity has done any damage, but the industries that flocked to the area to take advantage of the power did more than enough - something that the final chapters explore in great detail in the case of "Love Canal", perhaps America's most famous toxic waster dump.
While there's little of it in the early chapters, when both Canada and America were still frontier societies, the second half of the book has plenty of comparisons between the two sides of the river. Canada get the better waterfall, of that there's no doubt, but Berton remains even-handed. Both countries get their share of praise and criticism for the way in which they exploit - or fail to exploit - the Falls, and indeed the afterword - which excellent summarises the preceding 450 pages - paints both as flawed but charming.
Niagara is far better in retrospect than in the reading, not because there's anything wrong with the prose, but just because it's a big story made of so many little stories, and the big story is easier to appreciate from above. I've learned so much: about the
I'll definitely be revisiting Berton, and indeed will probably acquire my own copy of the book to take with me to Niagara Falls. I want to visit the statues of Tesla and the French acrobat Blondin, take a tour of the massive power plants, and even see what's left of Love Canal. It's a rare pleasure to so keenly feel the history of a place, and I can't help but think that feeling will be wonderful when I am there in person.
Chapters: 13 (split into 52 "verses")
Page count: 449 (including the afterword, but not the acknowledgements, bibliography or very comprehensive index)
Book's title mentioned on page: 12 (the first page of the introduction. Well..."Niagara" is mentioned; he never uses the full title)
Best name encountered: Martha E. Wagenfuhrer; also the engineering firm of Balf, Sarin and Winkelman. (Isambard Kingdom Brunel gets a mention in passing, but only by his last name.)
New words: funambulist; cataract (in the geological sense; despite it's repeated use, I had to remind myself this wasn't a book about eyes right to the end)
Inner Five-year-old score: 7 (it has adventure and big buildings and Nikola Tesla and everything! That last chapter would have scared the hell out of me at five, though.)
Fun Wikipedia fact: Bruce Lee gave his only television interview on The Pierre Berton Show in 1971.