Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Johnstown Flood

Books!  They are what makes Betty so darn smart and so darn pretty too. It was at my grandparents' house that I discovered my first Reader's Digest Condensed Book.  Four books in one!  Wow!  This was the the equivalent of Neapolitan ice cream with all those flavors in one solid block!  How did they do it?  I ate these up and went back for more.  Later, when I went to college I learned it was cool to look with disdain upon these abbreviations of books.  However, these mysterious decadent treats, odd flavors of literature stacked together, created new taste sensations that seemed like they should be forbidden.  They led Betty down the rebel path of literature and encouraged a propensity for strange combinations of styles and ideas that survives and both torments and rewards her even today.

Regular readers of Betty will recall that there was a period in my life where talking organs and the chatty respiratory system of the body sent me into the heights of intellectual stimulation.    However, it was through one of the Condensed Books Selections that  I discovered the genre of the true, horrifying tale told, not like a dry newspaper report, but instead using all the elements of the novel.

Discovering The Johnstown Flood by William McCullough at age 11, was a pivotal moment in my life. There would be no eating, no drinking, no movement from the girl on the couch with the book. I was totally sucked into the story and richly illustrated pictures (I scanned one, above) of death and destruction provided me with hours of entertainment. There was one two-picture spread that continued on the back of the second page, making for three pictures that actually made up one, long picture. I had to flip back and forth between the second and third pages in order to fully connect the whole picture in my brain, and I did. For hours.

Throughout the book, there is horror after horror descending upon the poor people of Johnstown. This was a ride through the terror and horror not normally afforded me on the safe and docile farm. This story fed some sort of terrible hunger that I had as a child, and only ignited my appetite for similar-themed books.  Through the years I was driven to read as many of them as I could.  I read about the Donner Party, death and danger on Everest, tale after tale of  danger on the high sea, including Mutiny on the Bounty, numerous books about the the Titanic, the Executioner's Song and finally In Cold Blood (NOT a story I would recommend to other teens living on small, secluded farms in Kansas, by the way.)

These kinds of books are almost always written from an eerie omniscient point of view, so that the author can torment the reader by recounting a character's excruciating, life-threatening illness or danger and then suddenly leave that character to go and go and build tension somewhere else in the book by putting some other character in mortal danger and so on, so that the reader is left like the harried surgeon trying to tend to four or five patients, each on the brink of death. It's exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. And McCullough makes sure we get to know, appreciate, and care for each of the characters he finally massacres, mutilates, and tortures via this flood. 

The scenes in The Johnstown Flood are vividly depicted through passages like these: (Note how we get the terror of both out-0f-control water AND out-of-control fire here. It's a 2-fer!  Prepare yourselves!)

"William Tice, who was fished out of the water near the bridge,  described what he saw.  'I went up on the embankment and looked across the bridge, which was filled full of debris, and on it were thousands of men, women and children, who were screaming and yelling for help... At each crash hundreds were forced under and slain.  I saw hundreds of them as the flames approached throw up their hands and fall backward into the fire.'"

The book uncovers many reasons for the flood, but one of the most heinous is failure of the haughty Fishing and Hunting Club to remove the fish guards from their lake.   A man by the name of Isaac Reed wrote this poem, which is included in the book and which I nearly had memorized and would have loved  to recite for my class instead of "The Wise Old Owl" which my teacher insisted upon instead.  I KNOW my fellow classmates would have liked it a lot better and, you can imagine, the theatrical Betty came out in my recitation, performed in the end only, alas, to my terrified stuffed animals. 

Many thousand human lives--
Butchered husbands, slaughtered wives,
Mangled daughters, bleeding sons,
Hosts of martyred little ones.
(Worse than Herod's awful crime)
Sent to heaven before their time:
Lovers burnt and sweethearts drowned,
Darlings lost but never found!
All the horrors that hell could wish
Such a price was paid for--fish!
It was at Bart's Books that I found a copy of the edition of the Condensed Books that held this gem.  It was in the selection of books on the outside of the store and someone had taken a magic marker and written the price (20 cents!) on the cover.  What were they thinking, defacing this fine tome?  I grabbed it up immediately, went home and went directly to my couch.  Oh yes. It was all still there: death, destruction and doom.  Ahhhh.  Great literature is so comforting.

Betty hopes this post inspires you to grab your own favorite tale of hideous suffering and despair and have a great Sunday afternoon with it.

Happy Reading!



Susan said...

I will never forget reading The Lottery when I was 9 years old-- I believed it was a true story and that scared me so much! Then I read about the Donner party when I was 10 years old. I will never forget the revulsion I felt when I discovered that people actually survived because they ate each other! (At least that is how I looked at it). Thanks for reminding me, Betty! Also, I love the new heading photo of the Giraffe's neck! I love the colors and pattern. I just like looking at it!

Bossy Betty said...

Thanks Susan for your comments! I put up the new picture and HOB said, "No one is going to know what that is." We had a LONG discussion about that!

I can't imagine reading "The Lottery" and thinking it was true! Shudder!

Ain't lit great?