The Johnstown Girls by Kathleen George. (History-Related Novel, 2014).
On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 two journalists with a major Pittsburgh newspaper are in search of fresh angles for a series of articles on the subject. Ben Bragdon and his younger co-worker Nina Collins plan to feature an in-depth interview with the oldest known survivor, 103-year-old retired teacher Ellen Emerson. Nina is a Johnstown native, whose mother was in school when the still-comparatively-spry Ellen was still teaching. She suggested this assignment, but Ben is a far more experienced and is thus the lead reporter. Ben is also separated from his wife and the two journalists are involved in a covert love affair.
The reporters personal relationship and problems therein take up a decent amount of the novel. These parts of the book are interesting and ring true to life.
Yet the true focus here is Ellen and her long-lost sister’s eventful lives. Mary had been listed among the 2000-plus people killed when the South Fork Dam burst and very nearly wiped the then-prosperous Pennsylvania steel city off the map. Her body was never identified, however. This wasn’t that unusual.
Yet Ellen has always sensed that her twin somehow survived.
As the account unfolds readers soon learn that Ellen’s ‘twin-sense’ is correct. Knocked unconscious and barely 3-years-old at the time, she was found and informally adopted by a troubled family down-river who soon moved to Pittsburgh. Her early memories reduced to vague, sometimes nightmarish dreams, Mary was renamed and only learned she was adopted from her new-mother’s deathbed confession, years later. She knows nothing about Ellen, or that they are the only survivors of their immediate family.
Experienced Ben politely discounts Ellen’s ideas about her sister, while Nina is so touched that she begins an informal investigation in her spare time.
In the course of the book we get to read the reporters’ articles, which provide a good deal of factual information about the flood. But a number of chapters detail highlights in the diverging lives of the fiction twins. Both have believable and fascinating experiences, joys and heartbreaks in the course of their long, long lives. Above I styled the novel as “history-related” because these multiple chapters embrace life as the two lived, from 1889 up through 1989. Included are personal feats and troubles the reporters will never know, but which deepen our understanding of the two centenarians.
I don’t want to spoil how it’s all resolved. But of course the two reporters’ efforts will each play key parts in leading to the twins being reunited. The story would be a total letdown, otherwise.
And since Johnstown, PA is literally less than ten miles down the road from where I sit composing this review, stories of the Great Flood are of special interest to me. The later, only somewhat less destructive, 1936 and 1977 Floods are also mentioned and handled well.
My personal interests notwithstanding, this novel stands quite well on its own merits. Written by genuine J-town native Kathleen George, it’s a very well-written and involving piece of fiction. The characters are varied, true to the area and times from which they sprang. Their sometimes messy personal histories are portrayed with compassion, truth and scope.
It’s of considerable interest to anyone from western Pennsylvania and others who want a compelling story informed with actual historical background and presented by an accomplished novelist.