woman in the photo book coverReviewed by Kelly Ferjutz

Wow! This book. I could use a thesaurus full of accolades and still run out of words, trying to describe the book and why it spoke to me so strongly.

I love history. Granted, I’m more partial to some events than others, but always willing to at least investigate one about which I’d had previous little knowledge. Take, for instance, the Johnstown Flood of 1889. It’s termed a ‘flood’ and in a way it was, but yet it really wasn’t. There was a hunting and fishing club up on the mountain, and so a damn was built to contrive a lake where there had never been one. A dam was built with a causeway on the top of it, to enable the carriages of the ‘rich and famous’ of that era to travel in comfort from the Johnstown train station in the valley, to the club up there in the clouds. When the causeway proved to be too narrow for some of the bigger carriages (progress,  you know!) the surface of the dam was lowered a bit. This allowed some leaks to occur in the structure; leaks which were quickly stopped by the insertion of a tree trunk or rocks or other hard matter that should withstand the pressure of the water from above.

The ‘rich and famous’ of that era were mostly from Pittsburgh: very wealthy families who wished to escape the smoke from the steel mills that provided much of the wealth. Families like the Mellons, the Carnegies, and the Fricks, among others. Today, those names are still prominent in that city. Also included were the Haberlins, the patriarch being a medical doctor who looked after the society families. The Haberlins were mother, father, daughter Elizabeth and son Henry. In the end, some 2209 persons perished in the flood; most were from the town, but some were from the upper reaches, as well.

Then, in modern day California, a young woman (who knows she was adopted) is informed by the State office in charge of adoptions that there is genetic information about her family. No names or other ID, just ‘genetic information’.

Lee Parker, with her adoptive mother, investigates this notice and discovers that she is of Ashkenazi heritage. Some Ashkenazi women have a gene mutation that could cause breast or ovarian cancer, so testing is recommended. Of more interest to Lee at that moment is the brief glimpse of a photo in the file. Two women, clothed in the fashion of more than a hundred years earlier are standing near a pile of rubble. Lee is oblivious to everything but the fact that the younger woman in the photo could easily be herself! The other woman is identified as Clara Barton, and the only other writing is the year. 1889.

Thus begins a treasure hunt since Lee’s only hope of identifying herself is to learn the location that resulted in the photo. Through searches at the library, and the Red Cross, eventually, another copy of that photo emerges, along with the information that it was at the scene of the Johnstown Flood.

I defy anyone to read Chapter 40 (pages 295-312) and not be moved by the vivid description of the tragedy. It isn’t egregious, or gratuitously horrible just for the sake of it, but still realistically describing the horror, for all that.

This is the third book I’ve read this year in which varying characters narrate the story in different years and even locations. This is a very powerful technique when it’s done well, and I think this one is perhaps the best so far!  I just simply could not put it down. It is amazing! But, truly, you must like history or you may not react as strongly as I did. Beautifully written, life-like characters, terrific plot. What else could a reader want?

First and foremost, Kelly is a reader, then a writer and editor. She adores Regency-set novels, and cozy mysteries. Every now and then, however, she finds something else to enjoy if it has a great premise with characters who belong in there, and fabulous writing! She writes under her own name, as well as her pen-name, Hetty St. James.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by William Morrow Paperbacks. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.