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Sixteen-Year-Old Celstia spends every summer with her family at the elite resort at Lake Conemaugh, a shimmering Allegheny Mountain reservoir held in place by an earthen dam. Tired of the society crowd, Celestia prefers to swim and fish with Peter, the hotel’s hired boy. It’s a friendship she must keep secret, and when companionship turns to romance, it’s a love that could get Celestia disowned. These affairs of the heart become all the more wrenching on a single, tragic day in May, 1889. After days of heavy rain, the dam fails, unleashing 20 million tons of water onto Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the valley below. The town where Peter lives with his father. The town where Celestia has just arrived to join him. This searing novel in poems explores a cross-class romance—and a tragic event in U. S. history.
About the Author
Jame Richards lives in Monroe, Connecticut. This is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club
Father says he comes for the fishing,
but in truth he comes to keep an eye on other businessmen.
I have never seen him hook a worm or tie a fly.
I cannot imagine him gutting a fish or scraping scales.
The only scales he knows are for banking and shipping.
But his partners and rivals decided it was time for fresh air,
peace and quiet,
away from the filth and crowds of the city.
So, even at this pastoral lakeside resort,
my father will not miss
the glimmer of a business deal spoken over rifles or fishing reels.
Mother likes the sociability of the other ladies though they cut her with their tongues.
She does not always follow their jokes but laughs along.
The gentlemen come to hunt animals;
the ladies come to hunt other ladies of a weaker sort.
glossy dark eyelashes and smooth pink cheeks.
My parents' favorite,
and, at nineteen, my senior by three years.
She starts each day in a steamer chair with plaid blankets and a book.
She plays the part of the lovesick sweetheart
her beau, Charles, learns the family business back home in Pittsburgh
but her natural buoyancy is not long repressed.
Fun always knows where to find her.
Just now, an errant croquet ball rolls under her chair.
She laughs and runs to the game,
the dappled sunlight,
and the jovial golden boys.
Handsome Frederick meets her halfway,
extending his arm.
Frederick with his shock of blond hair,
and skin glowing with health . . .
Poor old Charles with his consumptive cough better arrive soon if he wants to find his intended still betrothed.
He cannot compete with the gaiety and romance of our sparkling little lake in the mountains.
Now about me
if I am not the fun-loving beauty,
then I must be the serious one,
the one who would toss the croquet ball back,
wave and sigh,
but be infinitely more fascinated with my book than with the superficial cheer of the society crowd.
The one who gets the joke but does not tolerate it.
The one who baits the hook and guts the fish with Peter,
the hired boy.
Papa says, "It's unnatural
lakes weren't meant to be so high in the mountains,
up over all our heads.
Rich folks think they know better than God where a lake oughta be."
He's talking about South Fork Reservoir,
miles of icy creek water held in place above our valley by a seventy-foot earthen dam.
The owners call it Lake Conemaugh.
They raised it up from a puddle,
built fancy-trim houses all in a row and a big clubhouse on the shore,
stocked it with fish,
and now they bring their families in from Pittsburgh every summer season.
Most of them stay in the clubhouse,
like an oversized hotel with wide hallways,
a huge dining room,
and a long front porch across the whole thing.
Dozens of windows, too,
so every room has a view of the reservoir
I mean, the lake.
Papa says, "They can't stack up enough money against all that water."
"Oh, Papa." I wave off the idea.
Everybody in Johnstown kids each other about the dam breaking.
We laugh because it always holds.
Papa says we're laughing off our fear.
Folks think he's something of a crank for always bringing it up.
I don't say anything more
at least until I can think how to tell him the sportsmen's club up at the reservoir is my new boss.
Papa says, "Don't go up there.
Being around all those rich folks'll only give you ideas of things you can't have."
He looks at Mama's picture.
I know he's thinking of ideas she had for things he couldn't give her.
That was before she went to rest underground in the cemetery on the hill.
Papa works underground in a different hill,
digging coal for the Cambria Iron Works.
Papa says the mines are graveyards, too,
only without the resting and the peace.
His tears are black and his cough is black.
I try not to smile. "I bet I won't hardly see any rich folks,
they'll have me working so hard,
planting and pruning and lugging stuff around."
I see him considering but I pretend to give in.
"Oh, okay, Papa, I'll just come to work with you, then.
Ask the foreman to find me a spot on the line."
He shakes his head,
coughing over his grumbling.
"No, you go up where the air is clean."
We both know,
now that I've turned sixteen,
I'll be in the mills soon enough,
putting in ten-hour days or more on the Iron Works payroll.
Why not have one last summer of sun and fish?