In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden tells the story of the Johnstown flood. Johnstown, Pennsylvania is a town located in a valley in the Allegheny Mountains, 67 miles East of Pittsburgh. In the early 1800s, a dam was built to make an artificial lake in a mountain above Johnstown in order to provide water for a canal system that was to provide transportation from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. This project was later abandoned, and the dam started to fall apart over time. In the 1880s, the richest of the rich in Pittsburgh bought the land and the dam to make it into a summer club. Hasty and insufficient repairs were made to the dam and the lake was restored, creating a beautiful mountain get-away. In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden begins with a brief summary of this history before introducing us to a handful of characters who live in Johnstown or live in Pittsburgh and visit the summer club. The book begins on Memorial Day 1889, the day before the flood. The author then goes back in time to share parts of the history of these various characters, describing their past, their hopes and dreams, their challenges and problems. The book slowly progresses over time, developing the characters and building suspense about the insufficiently repaired dam. The day after Memorial Day, 1889, torrential rains bring more water and debris into the lake than the dam can withstand, and it breaks. 20 million tons of water go rushing down the mountain, sweeping along everything in its path, before striking Johnstown. The town is virtually wiped out, and 2,209 people die. In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden concludes with a final chapter showing one character in 1917 and summarizing her past since the harrowing flood.
In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden meets the definition of historical fiction. It was written in recent years about a distant past and attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail. There is a huge amount of accurate detail about the times and every aspect of the characters’ lives. The characters are a mix of real historical people (Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, etc) and fictional characters that convincingly fit the time period. The book presents itself as focusing on a specific event (the flood), but it is really a character story. It is slow paced, but is neither particularly dense nor long (254 pages).
The summary cannot do justice to this beautiful book. The writing was, for the most part, very good, and the author had me deeply invested in all of the characters from the beginning. The book was a fascinating but very tragic read. The author did a great job of making the rich characters complex, with problems of their own, rather than one dimensional villains. I also enjoyed reading something about local history. I have learned about several of the historical characters and visited several of the places in Pittsburgh that were mentioned. My one major annoyance was that I did not like the ending. I feel that the book was insufficiently wrapped up, the ending abrupt. This may have been intentional – creating a feeling of interruption of all the lives of the characters killed in the flood. However, I thought that the author could have done a better job of providing closure and of wrapping together final thoughts on the themes of the book.
I would definitely recommend this book to readers of historical fiction. It is one of the best books I have read recently and fits all of the major characteristics of historical fiction. In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden also has many characteristics of a romance, without the happy ending. I would suggest this book to readers of romance who are looking to branch out into new areas. Some aspects of the book may also appeal to readers of Westerns- the strong feeling of place, the historical setting, the focus on the power and danger of nature, and the praise of strong individuals willing to set a path.