Niagara: A History of the Falls

by Pierre Berton,
ISBN: 0771012128

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Over the Brink
by John Doyle

PIERRE BERTON starts his history of Niagara Falls like this: "In the beginning was the ice." It's a rather cold-footed beginning to a journey all around and under the Falls, and the same plodding pace is maintained throughout the book.

Well, the ice melts, the Falls take shape and the first European traveller arrives. Berton gives Father Louis Hennepin the same treatment he applies to every one of the documented visitors and adventurers who encountered the Falls. There's a short sketch - name, date, and place of birth with a quirk of personality added to quickly define the character. The result is a seamless book of anecdotes fleshed out with tiny, distilled biographies, all written in the pedantic, scrupulous style so familiar from Berton's other books. It's a crowd-pleasing trick, but here the result is that Charles Blondin, the man who danced on a rope over the Falls, is made as mundane as the anonymous farmer who recorded that it cost him $37.85 to tour the Falls in 1877.

Thanks to the lurid and often inaccurate accounts of Niagara's wonders that came from the first travellers, right from the beginning the Falls attracted a constant stream of deadbeats, daredevils, critics, and admirers. They're all here, and so are their wives, husbands, lovers, and cousins. What's missing is some spark of invention to leap beyond the lists of visitors and the laborious account of the harnessing of the Falls for hydro power. Nor is there any vivid speculation as to the imaginative grip of Niagara. Instead the reader gets trite homilies - "The noble cataract reflects the concerns, the fancies and the failings of the times. If we can gaze deeply enough into its shimmering image, we can perhaps discern our own." This little sermonette is hard to swallow. Surely the fact is that Niagara Falls is more likely to induce a bout of the collywobbles.

The best and brightest section of this dull book is the account of the Love Canal environmental disaster. Perhaps it's the reporter's instinct emerging at last, because Berton seems genuinely involved in the fight between the terrified residents and the arrogant, uncaring Hooker Chemical Company. The book ends with the battle over Love Canal, and the underlying theme, such as it is, becomes finally clear. Niagara: A History of the Falls is a morality tale of debasement and decline - what was once a mesmerizing marvel of nature was harnessed by man and ultimately used to unleash a terrible blight on the ordinary people of Niagara Falls, New York. There is much interesting historical information to be garnered here about the transformation of the Falls from stunning wonder to flaky theatre on the Canadian side and industrial hellhole on the American side, but the book is banal. This is Berton in low gear, puttering around the subject and only occasionally sputtering to life.


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