The Johnstown Girls

Written by Kathleen George
Review by Arleigh Johnson

The Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1889 remains one of the deadliest weather-related disasters in United States history, killing more than 2,200 and leaving the town decimated. Subsequent floods in 1936 and 1977 play a role in this retelling, as a host of characters relay their lives as affected by the events.

The great flood’s centennial in 1989 is hardly newsworthy to the editor of Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette, but he allows the piece to go forward, hoping for fresh material from a story heavily covered in decades past. Ben Bragdon is the journalist covering the story, but his girlfriend, Nina Collins, a newly hired assistant at the paper, supplied the idea and the contact for their article: 103-year-old Ellen Emerson—the last known living survivor of the Johnstown Flood. Ellen’s parents and brother perished, but her twin sister was never found. Feeling restless, Ellen finally decides to divulge family secrets never before revealed to the press, while Nina hunts for her long-lost sister.

With multiple points of view, it is difficult to become instantly engaged in the narrative, but by the halfway point—once the characters are shaped into intriguing protagonists—it moves right along. The theme of twin psychology adds a fascinating aspect to counter the sometimes slow story of Ben’s and Nina’s personal struggles. The story could have been written without the flashback perspective, but perhaps Ellen’s quirky personality wouldn’t have been as well-appreciated.

The history of this devastating event is minutely detailed and particularly authentic, as the author is from the town of Johnstown. Coming on the 125th anniversary of the flood, this is a worthy literary contribution to the memory of those who lost their lives and an excellent study for readers interested in natural disasters and American history.