Book review

'The Johnstown Girls" is a captivating tale

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"Is a hundred years long enough to keep a secret?" This is the question Johnstown Flood survivor Ellen Emerson asks herself in Kathleen George's latest novel, "The Johnstown Girls."

When the Johnstown Flood struck on May 31, 1889, it was regarded as one of the nation's worst natural disasters. The flood was a result of a faulty dam that was owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a club whose members included prominent figures such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.

By Kathleen George
University of Pittsburgh Press ($24.95).

When the water broke through the dam, a great wave descended into the town with the force of Niagara Falls, leaving 2,209 people dead. In Ms. George's fictional work, when the flood coursed through the town, it swept along twin sisters on a mattress. One was saved and the other, presumed to be dead, was never found.

Flash forward to 1989, just before the 100th anniversary of the flood, when Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters Ben Bragdon and Nina Collins are on a mission to interview the little girl who lost her entire family but survived the flood on a mattress.

Her name is Ellen and at 103 years old, she's possibly the last living Johnstown Flood survivor. At Ben's insistence that Ellen tell him something new about her experiences, Ellen decides 100 years is long enough to have kept a secret and makes the startling revelation that beyond all reason, she believes her twin sister, Mary, is still alive.

Her secret provides a captivating story for Ben's article, but Nina, who is a Johnstown native, forms a deeper bond with Ellen and sets out to solve this mystery. Although Ellen's story is a central storyline, "The Johnstown Girls" is a book of intersecting stories.

As Ellen delves into her memories, miles away 103-year-old Anna Hoffman is in a nursing home and grappling with her own vague recollections of a childhood she can't remember. Then there is Nina and Ben, whose romantic relationship becomes increasingly strained when Ben's estranged wife puts a wrench in the divorce process.

As Ms. George (a Johnstown native) whips readers from storyline to storyline, she also takes readers back through the lives of Ellen and Anna post-1889. The girls grow into women leading unconventional lives that run parallel to each other. As time moves on, the girls live through war, changing styles and the world modernizing.

Ellen works to convince herself that Mary is dead while Anna tries to unravel the mystery of her childhood, but neither can shake the sense that something is missing. "The Johnstown Girls" is a story with characters that feel so real that it's sometimes hard to remember the book is a work of fiction. This is further compounded by the vivid descriptions of the flood that correspond with historical accounts and the fact that the story is set in very real locations.

Pittsburgh readers will recognize familiar places such as the Hill District, Chatham University when it was still known as Pennsylvania College for Women, Carnegie Library -- even Eat'n Park.

Each chapter is peppered with actual photos and articles from around the time of the flood that also help ground the narrative and illustrate a town so full of life and history that even the destruction of the flood couldn't obliterate it.

The result of this trip through time is a colorful account of one of the most traumatic moments in Pennsylvania's history and the lives it changed. Ms. George's novel couldn't have come at a better time. May 31 will mark the 125th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood.

Kathleen George will be signing copies of "The Johnstown Girls" at 7:30 tonight at the Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland. The event is free. There is a 6 p.m. dinner for $35. Call 412-828-4877 for details.




Kitoko Chargois is a senior at Chatham University (

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