Jennie (Sunfire #31) - Jane Claypool Miner Oh, Sunfire. Your simple formulas always ring so true! Big historic events. Plucky heroines. Non-threatening love interests. I love this Nostalgia Stew so much. It makes me feel like a kid again, before I started reading "adult" books and subsequently lost my faith in humanity. Sunfires have the privilege of being both entertaining and educational. I spent a majority of my Jennie reading time poised next to the computer, ready to Google search the hell out of the rich history. So much fun, even though I was researching a tragedy.

When Karla informed me that a Sunfire based on the Johnstown Flood exists, I got ridiculously excited. I lived in Johnstown for 4 years, half of that time probably covered in a foot of snow. The City of Johnstown is a proud little bowl of a town at the bottom of a gorge. It's an old steel town, and the people reflect those blue collar roots. Proud, hard-working, and self-sufficient, the modern people of Johnstown are remarkably similar to the ones described in Jennie. For an economically depressed, thrice devastated area (calamitous floods in 1889, 1936, and 1977), Johnstown continues to stand, perhaps weaker than before but still an example of the grit that makes up a majority of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

While the 1936 and 1977 Johnstown Floods can be blamed on what I like to call the region's "temperamental" weather, the 1889 flood is notable for its human folly. Jennie begins one day before the flood. It's been raining heavily for days, and the title character is fully aware of Johnstown's tendency to flood and of the dangers of South Fork Dam. The dam was designed poorly to begin with, and the rich people running the South Fork Hunting & Fishing Club didn't maintain the dam well. It's a ticking time bomb, and Miner's pacing of the moments leading up to the disaster emphasize that.

Telegraph operator Jennie is a great heroine. She's outspoken about class tensions of the time and doesn't back down from a challenge. When she meets old childhood playmate Jim, a practical guy who takes the advantages offered to him by the rich men at the Club, Jennie doesn't hold back her ball-buster ways. At one point during their first conversation, Jim mentions that they were friends as children, and Jennie rapidly replies, "We were never really friends." So, yes, this Sunfire heroine has spunk. It's really no surprise that she managed to ride out the flood for 14 miles from South Fork into Johnstown, clinging to various bits of debris. She probably could have made it for days, just cruising down the makeshift river, nodding like a badass at all the astounded people on the banks.

The two Sunfire-mandatory suitors are Jim, the boy-next-door who always manages to raise Jennie's hackles, and David, a Philadelphia reporter who considers the Johnstown Flood to be a prime career opportunity. Jim gets a Big Damn Hero moment when, realizing the dam is going to break, he flees the club and tries to warn the people of South Fork and get a message to Johnstown. David offers Jennie a job as a telegraph operator in the aftermath of the flood to assist the deluge of reporters from all over the country. I liked both guys, even if I though David's enthusiasm about his BIG STORY was insensitive in the environment of such carnage.

Miner does a fine job of capturing the events of the flood and the recovery process. Even though I knew Jennie would survive, I couldn't help but get nervous as Miner throws obstacle after obstacle at the poor girl on that harrowing trip from South Fork to Johnstown. Later, she spares us an eye-witness account of the fire that consumed the massive amount of debris that got stuck under and around the Johnstown Bridge, opting instead to describe the screams of the people trapped in the fire and rubble. Later, she describes the destroyed property and the smell of decomposing bodies. The survivors start a recovery plan very fast, assisting their neighbors, caring for the hurt and the homeless. Their endurance is still present in the modern people of Johnstown, I think. Nothing really keeps them down. They'll fight and rebuild and move on with minimal drama. Miner captures that down-to-earth, no-nonsense perseverance very well in her characters.

2,209 people perished in the Johnstown Flood. No other US disaster touched that death toll until 9/11. 99 entire families were wiped out in the blink of an eye. Men and women helplessly watched their children and spouses die. Over 750 of the deceased were never identified. Just ... wow. One of the facts I found that does a great job of emphasizing the scope of the flood is that bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati in 1911. HUGE flood. The dam let loose 20 million tons of water, and the resulting wave grew as high as 35-40 feet and hit Johnstown at 40 MPH. Holy crap.

Well done, Jennie, for thoroughly entertaining me and inspiring my Google research spree that I eagerly used to spout Flood Facts at my disinterested husband. :D

To find out more about the Johnstown Flood and to see pictures (oh, there are so many pictures), go here.