Kathleen Cambor: Daring readers to care for the people at the bottom of the mountain.
Kathleen Cambor: Daring readers to care for the people at the bottom of the mountain.
Deron Neblett

Down in the Valley

Kathleen Cambor grew up in Pittsburgh, and she thought that everyone who grew up there knew about the Johnstown flood. A century before, Johnstown had been a little steel-making city, only a short train ride away from polluted Pittsburgh, in a pretty section of the Allegheny Mountains. Fifteen miles above Johnstown, at the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon and Henry Clay Frick vacationed in luxury. Sailboats scudded across the club's artificial lake; pampered children staged costumed tableaux vivants; members reeled in black bass, imported by rail at the extravagant cost of $1 per fish.

Carnegie, Mellon and Frick scrutinized the fine points of the business dealings, but they seem to have ignored matters concerning the club. Daniel Morrell, the owner of Johnstown's ironworks, nervous about the lake's dam, hired an engineer to examine it, and wrote to the club men that the shoddy repairs endangered the towns in the valley below; Morrell even offered to share the cost of repairs. In response, he received only a curt letter. "You and your people," wrote the club's developer, "are in no danger from our enterprise."

The developer was wrong. In 1889 the dam collapsed, unleashing 20 million tons of water. The torrent rolled down the mountain, collecting barbed wire, trains and trees. The debris-laden wave slammed Johnstown with the force of the Niagara River reaching the falls. More than 2,200 people died.

Kathleen Cambor, the daughter of an Irish roofer, understood the story as a cautionary tale: The carelessness of the rich can kill; the people at the top of the mountain rarely pause to think about those below. As an adult, living in Houston, Cambor began writing In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden, a novel about the flood. At dinner parties, asked what she was working on, she described the tragedy. She wasn't surprised that often her acquaintances knew something about the disaster but nothing about the robber barons' connection to it. She was surprised, though, to find that other Pittsburgh transplants had never heard of Johnstown or its flood. Like her, they grew up near Johnstown; unlike her, they were the children of doctors and lawyers. It was the working class that remembered.

In some ways, it's surprising that Cambor remembered. Her husband, Glenn, is a successful psychiatrist, and their comfortable house lies near the mansions of North and South boulevards. If Carnegie, Mellon and Frick lived in modern-day Houston, they'd house-hunt in Cambor's neighborhood.

Johnstown also seems a dangerous subject for a literary writer. Until December Cambor directed the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, an institution of high seriousness, a place where novelists are considered artists, and their creations heralded as literature. As raw material for literature, the Johnstown flood seems a little too raw: The real-life drama and high contrasts easily could curdle into airport-novel melodrama; the inescapable symbolism (the people at the top versus the people at the bottom) seems entirely too neat. Sure, Grisham and Crichton and Clancy have clear-cut heroes and villains, but they're not literary writers. Cambor wanted something deeper and truer and more complex than an airport novel. She wondered about the complicated, imperfect lives of the people killed. And she wondered what the robber barons had been thinking, what motivated them, how it was that they paid no attention to the dam.

To understand her characters' interior lives, she started with the exterior, documented truth. Inspired by an NPR essay on the flood, she looked up David McCullough's excellent history. She read about the clothes of the period, about steelmaking and trade unions; she devoured biographies of the robber barons and their families. She read the writers that they admired, Marcus Aurelius and Matthew Arnold. She visited Johnstown's two museums dedicated to the flood. She studied 15 books on earth dams alone. She pored over the photographs that survive from the club: the girls in their white summer dresses, the boys rowing on the lake.

Starting with those hard historical facts, she imagined the rest. She gave fictional life to Carnegie, Mellon and Frick, and created entirely a slew of other characters: the young lawyer pressured to do the club's dirty work; the lawyer's daughter, who lives for summers at the club; the Johnstown boy who falls in love with the lawyer's daughter; the boy's father, the factory foreman; the librarian the foreman loves.

In the novel's prologue, Cambor writes that the people in the valley wondered about the club at the top of the mountain, that they thought of it as a place from a fairy tale, a place with sailboats and fancy-dress dinners and young women engaged to royalty. But for members of the club, no mythologies surrounded the residents of the valley: "Mythologies require curiosity and interest, and the members felt neither."

In that prologue, Cambor all but explicitly tells the reader that the dam will break and Johnstown will be wiped out. The prologue serves as a dare: a dare to the reader to feel curiosity and interest about characters who almost certainly will die, the not-rich and not-famous people of the valley.

In airport novels, good triumphs in the last chapter. The last few pages tie up loose ends, cement budding relationships, reward hardworking heroes and punish rich villains. Literary fiction is messier (In Sunlight is no exception), and usually, real life is messier still.

But the true-life story behind In Sunlight appears to be hurtling toward a satisfying airport-novel resolution. The book began appearing in stores just after Christmas, and early signs indicate that it may be that much-sought rarity, a novel that aims high and sells well. For the first printing, Ferrar, Straus & Giroux ordered 40,000 copies. Paperback rights sold for a healthy $200,000, and foreign-language rights followed suit. "A potential literary bestseller," said Publisher's Weekly. "Reading for a rainy day," said People magazine.

By remembering the people at the bottom, Cambor appears to be heading toward the top.


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