In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden

Written by Kathleen Cambor
Review by Michael I. Shoop

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 in Pennsylvania was one of the worst disasters in American history: over 2,200 people died, including 99 whole families. Kathleen Cambor has taken this tragic event and woven an engrossing tale around it, including both real and fictional characters, and in the process has created a microcosm of late Victorian society.

The South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club was founded near Johnstown in 1879 as a pleasure retreat for wealthy industrialists and their families. It included the three-mile-long Lake Conemaugh and the structurally unsound South Fork Dam. Although concerns were expressed from the outset by the local residents, the issue of the dam’s safety was largely ignored by the club’s members, and this attitude of neglect and general unconcern for the local population contributed mightily in the events which followed.

With her excellent use of period detail and elegantly written prose, Cambor is able to involve us in her story through her characters. The presence of such historical personages as Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon and his doomed Laura, and Andrew Carnegie adds authenticity and depth to the author’s narrative.

Even though we know the final outcome of the story, the author skillfully makes us care for her characters and their lives. Cambor’s well-paced style and beautifully crafted sentences reveal her characters layer by layer. She deftly creates a sense of urgency and maintains some modicum of suspense as to who will survive and who will die when the dam ultimately gives way. In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden is a realistic portrayal of a particular place and time, peopled with vivid characters and strong emotions, all shattered forever in the aftermath of a disaster that should never have happened.