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The Day the Falls Stood Still By Cathy Marie Buchanan
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The Day the Falls Stood Still

Discussion Questions

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s idea that Niagara Falls possessed the power to lure those who gazed at it too long into throwing themselves from the brink was once quite widely held. And like Tom says in The Day the Falls Stood Still, people once did reference the falls using phrases like “awful grandeur” and “frightful beauty.” In fact, the book’s epigraph from 1885 uses “awful symbol of Infinite Power, in whose dread presence we stand” to invoke Niagara Falls. Whether or not you’ve been, you likely have some idea of Niagara Falls. Has our perception of it changed over time? Will you look at Niagara Falls differently after having read The Day the Falls Stood Still? Does having read it make you want to visit Niagara Falls?

2. Bess finds herself angry with Tom after the ice bridge rescue, and then lashes out at him after the scow rescue. Is her anger warranted? Is it a shortcoming of hers that she cannot buy into some notion of Tom being guided on the river?

3. Bess loses her faith in God midway through the book, and Tom comes home from the war a broken man. What parallels are there, if any?

4. At one point, Bess dreams she is unable to lift the caul that is suffocating Jesse. (pg. 205) What stirs up such a dream? Is it prescient?

5. What does Bess learn from her mother?

6. Kit once says to Bess, “You’re getting more and more like Isabel.” (pg. 274) What does Kit mean? Is she right?

7. Why is it that Tom is able to predict the whims of the Niagara River? Intuition? Second sight? Keener perception than most? Fergus whispering in his ear? What would Bess say? Would her explanation change over the course of the book? What would Tom say?

8. Just before abandoning the rope tethered to Jesse and plunging into the whirlpool, Tom says, “Believe in me, Bess.” (pg. 289) What does he mean? Does he know how the events of the day will unfold?

9. Bess wonders if she would have blamed Tom had he not gone in after Jesse. She asks herself, “Had Tom imagined what afterward would have been like and seen what I did? Had it edged him closer to the whirlpool?” (pg. 295) How valid is Bess’s guilt?

10. Was the outcome of the story predestined? Are there steps Bess and/or Tom could have taken to improve the odds of a different ending?

11. Do you think Bess will ever again see prayers rising in the mist? What leads you to believe this?

12. Do you think Isabel goes to the falls with intent? Or is she seized by a sudden impulse at the brink of the falls?

13. How might Isabel have fared had she chosen a different route? What might life have been like for her as a laundress at the Victor Home for Women in Toronto? What character traits might she have tapped into?

14. What sort of life do you imagine for Jesse? Will he feel Tom’s guiding hand? Be racked with guilt? Will he be Niagara’s next great riverman?

15. What do you think about Fergus’s story being revealed to the reader through newspaper articles? How else could his story have been told? Would it have been as effective?

16. Given what we now know about the carbon dioxide emissions and pollution caused by coal mining and burning, would Tom feel differently about the diversion of water for hydroelectricity today?

17. Hydroelectricity has a reputation as clean energy. How warranted is the reputation?

18. In The Day the Falls Stood Still, true to history, Sir Adam Beck’s Hydro-Electric Power Commission uses the Hydro Circus, the Hydro Lamp magazine, Hydro stores, advertisements, and floats in parades to up the demand for electricity. How responsible are the power companies for creating today’s consumer society? How has their role changed?

19. In a letter home to Bess, Tom describes the Niagara River on occasions when unusual weather had restricted the river’s flow. He goes on to say, “The Niagara wasn’t all that different from any other river in the world, definitely not something that would cause a man walking by to stop, and maybe fill with wonder for a bit and be lifted up from the drudgery of his day.” (pg. 169) How valid is the awe that Tom describes as a reason to preserve nature?

20. Are you recommending The Day the Falls Stood Still to friends? Why, or why not?
About Cathy Marie Buchanan

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