The Johnstown Girls – an incredible story of survival and longevity


Woah, I kind of feel like I’ve been tossed around on a mattress riding through the floodwaters of this novel. Don’t jump to conclusions, though. This is not a negative review. I actually really liked this book despite having a devil of a time getting into it and getting interested in it. From the beginning, I disliked the distant, impersonal narration. Third person present. It seemed such an odd way to tell the story. I got used to it, but I also didn’t like Ben or Nina, so it was hard to get started and become invested in the book. However, that finally happened when the book became more about the lives of Ellen and Anna than about the journalists. The lives led by Ellen and Anna are different, yet the same, and both are fascinating. Both were forward thinking women for their time, which led them to have long, meaningful lives. As Nina points out, these women lived through four wars, the changing from horse-drawn transportation to automobiles, from candles to electric. They watched the entire world change in the span of their 100+ years.

As the book jumped from Ellen and Anna’s lives back to the journalists, I slowly began to like Nina. She was a Johnstown girl, a fighter, a survivor. Finding her way without help and support. Learning to identify, then follow her instincts. She blossomed into her own person and learned what she wanted, both personally and professionally. To me, however, Ben remained a wet noodle throughout the novel. He seemed a man who either didn’t know what he wanted or didn’t have the guts to go get what he wanted. Either way, I could never muster any sympathy for him, despite his awkward, difficult situation.

Kathleen George’s style of blending truth (the Johnstown flood really was a natural disaster that devastated the town in 1889) with fiction was well done and very appealing. Her story of Ellen and Mary riding through the flood gives the reader a sense of what the disaster was like for the real people who survived it. The inclusion of actual photos from the flood and its aftermath heightened the devastation described in the novel and added to the overall sense of loss and attitude of perseverance and survival.

Give this novel a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

University of Pittsburgh Press – April 1st 2014