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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Queen of the Falls, written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2011. $22.99 ages 8 and up

"Why had so many people gathered to watch a barrel plunge over the waterfall? Wouldn't the tons of water pounding onto the rocks below have simply broken it to pieces? And yet there they stood, watching and waiting, holding their breath - waiting, because they all knew the barrel was not empty."

This is Chris Van Allsburg's first book of nonfiction, and it is pretty impressive. Not his usual fare given the wonderfully ironic fantasy world he often delivers for his host of spellbound fans. He says he felt it would be quite different from his usual projects; but:

"This was not the case. There is something decidedly fantastic and not quite real about Niagara Falls, about Annie's adventure, and about the stories that can unfold when imagination, determination, and foolhardiness combine to set humans off in pursuit of their goals."

Being a sixty-two year old woman, I can tell you that thinking about having myself fastened inside a barrel with a handhold and a bunch of soft pillows would ensure an untimely death, never mind anyone putting me in it, then in the water and sending me over Niagara Falls. I almost couldn't read the description without feeling woozy.  Daredevil I am NOT!

We know much about the Falls and the fact that the water 'drops from a height that is as tall as a seventeen-story building'. What would entice a former charm school owner and teacher to even consider going over them? Annie was in need of money following the failure of her school. She thought about the kind of work a woman might do in the early twentieth century. Perhaps clerk in a store, or clean homes, or any number of other menial tasks...none would provide a viable living for a woman on her own and facing old age. Notoriety might work! What could drum up more interest, and money, than riding over Niagara Falls in a barrel?

Now, I know that sixty-two year old women can be determined, feisty and steadfast in their commitment to a goal, so it isn't surprising that Annie set about doing all that she needed to ensure this adventure. She would live to tell people all about it, and they would pay money to hear her tell her story. It didn't happen...people were not interested. They were, however, quite taken with the barrel...and it was stolen twice from her. She had to have another one built for her. She sold postcards and souvenirs at the Falls for years, while the replica of the barrel formed the backdrop. She also had accomplished something that no one else had ever done...and she was content with that! She is, to this day, the only woman to have gone alone over the Falls in a barrel.

As with his other books, Chris Van Allsburg creates impressive illustrations to accompany this tender, and sad, tale of a woman with a dream. He tells her story with honesty and compassion, showing each of the many scenes with clarity and a sense of wonder at the feat she accomplished. We come away from the reading feeling that we know Annie, and awed by the tension he creates to help us take the ride with her.

For the first time I wonder what else has happened in 'this' world that might attract the attention of such an acclaimed and honored artist and storyteller. Personally, I can't wait (as always) to see his next book!

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