Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies

8 07 2008

I finally got my oil changed this morning at Grease Monkeys, my first excursion into finding an oil change venue in the greater Bloomington area. I was pretty impressed: decent prices, great attention to detail, cheap cans of soda and free Twinkies. Seriously, any place that has free Twinkies in their waiting room is a business I can get behind. Not that I consumed, keeping in mind the gym trip later in the day, but I appreciated the thought.

Aside from getting my oil changed, tires rotated, air filters changed, and back windshield wiper replaced, I finished Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies in the Twinkie-laden waiting room. My first (and only) trip to the falls was last May when Julie and I stopped on the way back from the International Reading Association’s Convention. I am a little obsessed with the Falls, having had parents who believed that summer travel involved a camper and a campground an hour away from home complete with Indian burial ground. In my entire childhood, I remember very little travel outside of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, save for a trip to Great America in Illinois when I was in second grade and won a huge stuffed dog in a game that we had to haul back with us. To view Niagara Falls, as Strand points out in the opening chapter of her book, is considered to be one of the rights of Americans and Canadians alike and one I, in my opinion, had been denied for far too long.

Julie and I viewed the Falls and rode the Maid of the Mist from the Canadian side, an interesting combination of theme park and natural splendor, overhearing much talk about the general grossness of the American side of the Falls. This is the subject of Strand’s work: how did the American side of Niagara become a poster child for urban blight given its’ proximity to the great Falls? Her scholarship is dedicated and insightful as she visits libraries and archive collections to piece together the fragmented and disjointed history of Niagara, one that is traditionally associated with respecting and bowing to the majesty of nature, and revealing it to be the converse: the history of Niagara Falls is about man shaping and reshaping the forces of nature. It is not the man that bows to nature, but nature that bows to the man.

Strand leaves no stone unturned, exploring the impacts of burgeoning industry in the years after Tesla harnessed the power of the falls, the desertion of the Niagara region when more inexpensive resources were available elsewhere, and the current plight of the city and the Falls themselves to become something less synthetic post-Robert Moses. So much information could overwhelm but Strand is one of those writers who is actually excited about the topic she is writing about; she is unafraid to look at the messy side of Niagara while still being awed by it all, providing an engaging voice that propels one along. Perhaps I am a little biased as I share a similar love for the Falls, although I’ve never spent what I imagine to be an insane amount of time researching it. It is a love letter to the Falls, a welcome read for anyone interested in the history of the Falls, its’ place in Americana, or (de)industrialization.

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One response

9 07 2008
rebecca

I love Niagara Falls!!!! I think I must be a water spirit… I am drawn to waterfalls, rapids, boating, etc…

The Canadian side rocks. The American side was kind of trashy, though. 😦

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