Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Woman in the Photo - Mary Hogan

Summary: In this compulsively readable historical novel, from the author of the critically-acclaimed Two Sisters, comes the story of two young women—one in America’s Gilded Age, one in scrappy modern-day California—whose lives are linked by a single tragic afternoon in history.

1888: Elizabeth Haberlin, of the Pittsburgh Haberlins, spends every summer with her family on a beautiful lake in an exclusive club. Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains above the working class community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the private retreat is patronized by society’s elite. Elizabeth summers with Carnegies, Mellons, and Fricks, following the rigid etiquette of her class. But Elizabeth is blessed (cursed) with a mind of her own. Case in point: her friendship with Eugene Eggar, a Johnstown steel mill worker. And when Elizabeth discovers that the club’s poorly maintained dam is about to burst and send 20 million tons of water careening down the mountain, she risks all to warn Eugene and the townspeople in the lake’s deadly shadow.

Present day: On her 18th birthday, genetic information from Lee Parker’s closed adoption is unlocked. She also sees an old photograph of a genetic relative—a 19th century woman with hair and eyes likes hers—standing in a pile of rubble from an ecological disaster next to none other than Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. Determined to identify the woman in the photo and unearth the mystery of that captured moment, Lee digs into history. Her journey takes her from California to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from her present financial woes to her past of privilege, from the daily grind to an epic disaster. Once Lee’s heroic DNA is revealed, will she decide to forge a new fate?
  (Summary and pic from

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: The very first review I did for Reading for Sanity was on McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood. If you haven’t read anything from the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning, National Book Award winning, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient David McCullough, then you are seriously missing out and should go do so straight away. I promise you won’t be disappointed. He’s an amazing writer, researcher, and historian, and he does an excellent job of bringing history to life in a detailed and poignant way. This could be a love fest for McCullough, but I digress…

I think the biggest strength of this book is how vividly it addressed the issue of the Johnston Flood, particularly the geography of it. Although I had read McCullough’s book (two years ago, to be fair) I learned new details about the flood from reading this book. For one thing, I guess I didn’t imagine that Johnstown itself was in a steep mountain valley, such that the lake was essentially above it in the sky. People would look up and see sailboats silhouetting the sky (weird, right?). Also, the bridge was a main factor in the flood and the neglect and manipulation by the elite at the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club in regards to that bridge and its maintenance played a big part. Probably most importantly—and I’m not sure how I missed this before—this is a story of the very elite versus the working class people. The very elite were the ones who had dammed (and damned) the lake because of their desire to harness it for their purposes, not only preventing the “lesser” people of Johnstown from enjoying its bounties (like the fish that were kept in the lake via a grate) but also putting them in obviously grave danger. I thought The Woman in the Photo did a great job of illustrating these issues and bringing them to light. It made the tragedy of the Johnstown Flood even more heartbreaking and senseless after understanding this back story.

As you can see from the description, this is one of those time hop books that has a historical fiction part and a modern part. I thought both these stories were interesting, although the characters were not super likeable. They weren’t unlikeable, but as with many women’s reads (and I wouldn’t classify this as a woman’s read, necessarily, although the two main characters are women) there is a fair amount of drama when reading about women’s innermost thoughts.

The writing in this book is good. It’s not exceptional and poignant, but it isn’t distracting or juvenile either. I thought it was decently written and enjoyed the stories. I definitely think that this is a book worth reading if you enjoy historical fiction or even time hop books.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some minor language in it.

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