Kathleen George. The Johnstown Girls. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014. Illustrations. 348 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4431-7.
Reviewed by Beverly Tomek (University of Houston-Victoria.)
Published on H-Pennsylvania (August, 2014)
Commissioned by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward
A Subtle Exploration of Race, Class, and Gender Dynamics in a Gripping Narrative about a “Natural” Disaster
On May 31, 1889, a thirty-seven-foot-high wall of water barreled through Johnstown, Pennsylvania, leaving 2,209 people dead and most of the town destroyed. Historians and journalists have told the story, highlighting the negligence of wealthy industrialists that allowed this tragedy to happen, describing the relief efforts to rebuild the town, and sharing the stories of survivors who somehow managed to beat the odds and live through the tragedy. The Johnstown Flood Museum and Johnstown Area Heritage Association have done a marvelous job of collecting artifacts and telling the story of the tragic and sadly fascinating event from all angles (http://www.jaha.org/FloodMuseum/oklahoma.html). Now Kathleen George has built on these accounts to create a novel that brings not just May 1889 but also the entire twentieth century to life for readers. In The Johnstown Girls, George introduces readers to the class issues that others have featured in the story of the flood, but in tracing the lives of her main characters after the flood she also subtly forces readers to contemplate the gender, race, and class issues that prevailed throughout the twentieth century.
The novel tells the story of several different characters who are connected only by Johnstown and the floods of 1889, 1936, and 1977. Set primarily in 1989, as reporters from a Pittsburgh newspaper research and write a series of articles to commemorate the flood’s centennial, the story begins by introducing Nina Collins, a reporter who was born and grew up in Johnstown. Nina is a junior reporter who is in a relationship with a more experienced male reporter, and she wants the newspaper to cover the history of the floods. Given her low status and lack of assertiveness, which she and others in the novel hint is a product of her gender, she convinces her boyfriend to write the pieces. She tags along on trips to her hometown as he interviews Ellen, a 104-year-old survivor of the flood.
Ellen, like the real-life Alice Quinn, survived the flood by riding on a mattress and is the only known survivor for the reporters to interview in 1989. In a suspenseful twist, Ellen insists that her twin sister Mary, who was on the mattress with her during the flood but disappeared in the melee, is still alive. The majority of the novel is then dedicated to telling the stories of these two women—Ellen, the vocal and outgoing twin who was from an early age known for questioning prevailing structures, and Mary (renamed Alice), the quieter twin who was found by a family that had reason to want her to erase her memories and think of herself only as their daughter. In writing about the lives of each of these women, George is able to describe the challenges they faced because of their gender as one sister goes on to earn graduate degrees at New York University, to work for a major publishing house, and then to become a community icon and teacher back home in Johnstown while the other devotes her life to nursing in nearby Pittsburgh and enters into an interracial marriage. She also uses their interactions with others to show ethnic, class, and racial tensions that prevailed throughout the twentieth century in the United States. The smooth flow of the narrative and George’s storytelling ability allow her to do this in a way that does not feel pedantic. These elements are not forced but instead are woven into the story in a way that allows them to sneak into the reader’s subconscious.
George’s treatment of Nina’s story is similar. Nina and her mother are descendants of survivors of the 1936 flood and survived the 1977 flood themselves, though it cost them dearly by setting the conditions for Nina’s father to have a heart attack and die at an early age. Throughout the narrative both Nina and her mother confront the traits that have left them timid—traits that many would attribute to their gender—and by the end both women are stronger.
The larger comment George, who is also from Johnstown, makes throughout the book is that Johnstown people, especially the women, have a certain grit that helps them hang on and rebuild after life’s challenges. The title, at first glance referring only to Ellen and Mary, actually refers to Nina and her mother as well.
In the tradition of Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day (2008), George’s The Johnstown Girls tells a meaningful story that builds on historical reality while painting a larger picture that goes well beyond the one event. Anyone interested in the flood itself, Pennsylvania labor history, northern gender issues, and even, to a lesser extent, the dynamics of separated twins will enjoy this novel. Being from the area, she also pays careful attention to detail and mentions landmarks and places that will bring back memories to anyone who grew up in or near Johnstown. Readers seeking a historical account of the Johnstown floods might be disappointed in the lack of detail of that particular event; however, the goal of the novel is not to retell the well-known story but to give it a human face that reflects, but does not necessarily recount, the history. George succeeds at this.
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Beverly Tomek. Review of Kathleen George, The Johnstown Girls.
H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews.
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