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The Johnstown Girls

The Johnstown Girls

Kathleen George
Copyright Date: 2014
https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt5vkh4t
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vkh4t
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  • Book Info
    The Johnstown Girls
    Book Description:

    Ellen Emerson may be the last living survivor of the Johnstown flood. She was only four years old on May 31, 1889, when twenty million tons of water decimated her hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Thousands perished in what was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history at the time. As we witness inThe Johnstown Girls, the flood not only changed the course of history, but also the individual lives of those who survived it.A century later,Pittsburgh Post-Gazettereporters Ben Bragdon and Nina Collins set out to interview 103-year-old Ellen for Ben's feature article on the flood. When asked the secret to her longevity, Ellen simply attributes it to "restlessness." As we see, that restlessness is fueled by Ellen's innate belief that her twin sister Mary, who went missing in the flood, is somehow still alive. Her story intrigues Ben, but it haunts Nina, who is determined to help Ellen find her missing half.Novelist Kathleen George masterfully blends a history of the Johnstown flood into her heartrending tale of twin sisters who have never known the truth about that fateful day in 1889-a day that would send their lives hurtling down different paths.The Johnstown Girlsis a remarkable story of perseverance, hard work, and never giving up hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It's also a tribute to the determination and indomitable spirit of the people of Johnstown through one hundred years, three generations, and three different floods.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7953-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. CHAPTER 1 Nina Saturday, April 15, 1989
    (pp. 1-27)

    Nina feels an uneasiness that borders on guilt. She is in her hometown. Her mother still lives here in Johnstown, but Nina never told her mother she would be here today, pretended instead that she’s hitching a ride in tomorrow. She hasn’t yet told her mother about Ben.

    Ben’s reservation specified that they wouldn’t be able to get into their room at the Holiday Inn until three, but they came by at noon and the guy at the desk said blithely, “Oh, sure, you can go up now.”

    The room has that motel tang of cleaning fluid and air-conditioning, but...

  2. CHAPTER 2 Sunday, April 16, 1989
    (pp. 29-59)

    “Aha, there you are!” her mother says, throwing open the screen door. “I got up early, I was so excited.” Right now it’s only eight. Through kisses and hugs her mother asks, “Where’s your ride? Where did he go so fast?”

    “Left me on the street. He has work.”

    “And he’ll be back for you?”

    “Yes. I don’t know the exact time, but I gave him your phone number. He’ll probably call before he comes by.”

    “It’s such a short visit!”

    “Better than no visit, right?”

    “Yes, yes, I don’t want to be a complainer. I’m ready to make breakfast.”...

  3. CHAPTER 3 Monday, April 17, 1989
    (pp. 61-107)

    Nina takes her car to thePost-Gazetteoffices most days, though half the time she hates to put more wear on it by taking it on assignment. Anyway, it sounds a lot better than Ben’s car does. This morning the otherPGemployee who lives in her building, Michelle, taps on her door wanting a ride, as she does most mornings. Michelle sometimes offers to take her for lunch as payment and they talk about work—or at least Nina steers the conversation that way.

    The first-floor apartment belongs to Michelle who has a large window that faces the porch....

  4. CHAPTER 4 Tuesday, April 18–Saturday, April 22, 1989
    (pp. 109-119)

    At eleven last night, after Ben left, she watched the news again, KDKA this time featuring the heroic fireman, and went to bed wondering if the fireman would indeed read her article the next day.

    On Tuesday morning, a few people in the office mention the article. So it probably passes muster. And she is sent before she can settle down with her cup of coffee—in her car this time—to check out a report of a shooting in Springhill. She spends stray moments imagining herself and Ben tucked into her place, other moments imagining herself being hit by...

  5. CHAPTER 5 Monday, April 24, 1989
    (pp. 121-127)

    When the snow thaws, people begin looking forward to summer and vacations. Not everybody can afford a vacation, of course; some are too poor to go beyond the backyard or the neighborhood park. Immigrant laborers tend not to think in terms of vacations. Work is simply what they do every day. People with middle-class incomes save up and go to the seashore, that great source of renewal. Really wealthy people have a broad choice—private resorts, the Riviera, exclusive hotels. Those wealthy citizens are shielded in many instances from the fact that people who actually live and work in the...

  6. CHAPTER 6 Ellen and Anna Autumn 1907
    (pp. 129-177)

    Melba Van Husen owned the Brownstone in New York that had been broken up into rooms for rent for which she sought working women and NYU students of a certain character. She charged them eight dollars a week and for that they got breakfast and dinner daily, peppered, in each case, by the wordrespectable, amazingly fit into sentences and paragraphs that would seem to have no particular use for it. Sometimes there were respectable eggs or a respectably cooked beef roast with potatoes.

    Ellen took a room there. Her room was tiny and fitted out with a gas fireplace...

  7. CHAPTER 7 Saturday, April 29–Sunday, April 30, 1989
    (pp. 179-199)

    Tomorrow is Orthodox Easter Sunday and today Nina is taking Ben to Johnstown to meet her mother properly. There’s another visit to Ellen happening, too, that’s how the weekend plan started, but it’s also time to bring her mother on board about Ben. They’re taking two cars because Ben is coming back on Sunday to finish up his article and she’s staying over on Monday, a little holiday with her mum.

    “Two cars,” he mutters. “It’s crazy.”

    “I know. Don’t be nervous. She’ll like you. And vice versa. I mean, she’s . . . you know, from J-town. Totally likeable.”...

  8. CHAPTER 8 Monday, May 1, 1989
    (pp. 201-217)

    On May 31, 1889, a forty-foot wall of water and debris sped down the mountain from South Fork into the valley that is Johnstown. It hit the city just before 4:10 p.m. More than 2,200 people died and the town was almost completely unrecognizable.

    George Swank, an editor of a local newspaper, wrote: “We think we know what struck us, and it was not the hand of Providence. Our misery is the work of man.”

    One problem was that the townspeople had heard warnings for several years that the dam was unreliable and might break. They became so used to...

  9. CHAPTER 9 Ellen August 26, 1950
    (pp. 219-223)

    The Buick had stalled once, then caught. She thought, “Well, what else to do on a Saturday?” Before she had gone far, she pulled over at a bakery first for a raisin cookie, one of her favorite things, a little like a Fig Newton but full of raisins instead and a good fifteen times the size. On the street strangers greeted her with a hello. Inside the bakery, the clerk knew her by name because she’d gone to the high school. This was the thing, the small town thing, that she had come to value. Friendliness caught on and spread...

  10. CHAPTER 10 Tuesday, May 2–Friday, May 5, 1989
    (pp. 225-250)

    “Who was your visitor?” Patricia Hays asks. She’s folding up the walker to put beside Anna’s bed. “You did really well today!” Yes, Hays is the one who is so curious about where Anna lived.

    “A woman I knew for a long time. She was the child of one of my son’s friends. I knew her when she was a little girl.”

    “Glad to see you had a visitor. Your son comes around?”

    “He was killed in the war.”

    “Which war?”

    These young people! “It was World War Two.”

    “Oh. That’s a long time ago.”

    “Yes. I didn’t have him...

  11. CHAPTER 11 Saturday, May 6–Sunday, May 7, 1989
    (pp. 251-267)

    Nina is in her car, enjoying the sweet slap of the windshield wipers and the rain—just a sprinkle. She’s not fully awake. Last night, late, she sat with Ben when he came in. She’d been listening to the Pirates on the radio, the end of the game and the talk show after. They’d won, that was great. And then she sat with Ben and told him about her evening with Douglas and he told her about his session with Amanda. She had a sip of scotch with him. She’d had wine at dinner. Mostly she listened. She told him...

  12. CHAPTER 12 Monday, May 8, 1989
    (pp. 269-286)

    The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was a capricious god. In the maelstrom that was the tumbling water of the South Fork Dam, there was a group of people huddled on a roof that floated, and though it was a strange ride, they thought they were safe and that they would live. There was a boy riding a tree trunk that careened crazily through the water, making him and everyone who saw him certain that he faced imminent death. The boy lived. The group on the roof died when the roof went under.

    By June 1, 1889, there were many such...

  13. CHAPTER 13 Anna and Ellen July 1925
    (pp. 287-293)

    The things he led her to: baseball, why she hadn’t paid much attention but the way he talked about it, then took her to a game the whole way over in Homestead—and it turned out she liked it. Once he took her and Ned to a Pirates’ game at Forbes Field, and she liked the baseball fine (Ned loved it, which was wonderful to see), but she had to witness the way Will pulled up his dignity from his work boots and took them to sit where the ticket sellers told him to go.

    Will was good to Ned,...

  14. CHAPTER 14 Tuesday, May 9–Friday, May 12, 1989
    (pp. 295-312)

    “Let me get this old. Just doing my thing, a nice, peaceful death.”

    “It isn’t going to be that peaceful.”

    “What if the antibiotics bring her around?”

    “They won’t. Not at her age.”

    “Will she be happy or sad is what I meant. If she comes around.”

    “She’d be dazed, probably.”

    “We hardly ever see them this old. Look at her skin. It’s not bad. I wonder what she used. Good genes, right? If I got this old, mine would be all pocked and horrible.”

    “I’d be demented. My whole family gets demented at sixty.”

    “That’s kind of young to...

  15. CHAPTER 15 Saturday, May 13–Sunday, May 14, 1989
    (pp. 313-331)

    Nina hardly slept at all and now it’s only six thirty in the morning and she is in her car, almost there. After a while, she decided the tossing was a silly way to spend her time. She got up and wrote a bunch of paragraphs—about twins, about the secret language of twins, and then conjectural paragraphs about a twin seeing an article and knowing—that part could turn out to be fiction, that part could be all about wishing. But she used her time last night and hardly thought about herself, which felt wonderful. She quoted Ellen about...

  16. CHAPTER 16 Wednesday, May 31, 1989
    (pp. 333-336)

    There are three of them on the stage: Nina, Ellen, and Mary. Sitting in the audience of hundreds is Ruth in the front row, Nancy, tearing up, a few rows back and only two rows from Bobby’s mother, and in the back, standing, as if cheering, Douglas. It’s a big day. The centennial planners have asked all three women to sit on the stage, symbols of tenaciousness, survival. Nina is very nervous. She plans to keep her remarks brief because she’s not the feature, the sisters are. “Heroes,” the mayor is calling all three of them. Heroes. Funny to think...

  17. Selected Recommendations for Further Reading and Viewing
    (pp. 337-338)