Review posted June 7, 2011.
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010. 40 pages.
2011 Sonderbooks Standout: #3 Children's Nonfiction
Chris Van Allsburg's books have always amazed me. One of the first ones my husband and I were given was The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and those pictures still fill me with wonder and a sense of something mysterious and magical. In fact, all of his books, and all of his pictures, convey that sense of mystery and magic.
What's amazing is that he managed to convey that same feeling in a nonfiction book about a historical event. But perhaps it's not completely surprising, since Niagara Falls certainly have wonder and majesty. Still, I don't think every artist could convey it so well.
This book tells the story of sixty-two-year-old Annie Edison Taylor, who was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. In fact, she was the first person to even have the crazy idea of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She hoped to make her fortune after doing this amazing act by traveling on the lecture circuit and showing the barrel.
The book shows the process she went through. There's an awe-inspiring spread as Annie's barrel hits the calm right before going over the edge. I wonder if it's possible to read that page without your pulse quickening.
After her daredevil stunt, fame and fortune did not follow. A grandmother in her sixties didn't look like a daredevil, and it turned out that the publicists she hired weren't trustworthy.
Reading this book was an interesting contrast to another book I just read -- Amelia Lost, by Candace Fleming, about Amelia Earhart. Amelia Earhart did achieve fame and fortune by doing daredevil stunts and then traveling on the lecture circuit. But Amelia was young and beautiful, and had an outstanding publicist who was also in love with her.
But Annie still achieved something amazing, and this book memorializes her story in a beautiful way.
I like what Annie tells a reporter at the close of this book, with the Falls spread out before them:
That's what everyone wonders when they see Niagara. How close will their courage let them get to it? Well, sir, you can't get any closer than I got. You ask any person who's stood here, looking out at those falls, what they thought of someone going over them in a barrel. Why, every last one would agree, it was the greatest feat ever performed.
And I am content when I can say, "I am the one who did it."