Waiting for the Rainbow
The Johnstown flood of 1889 – when a dam created to make a lake for a wealthy country club burst, sending a wall of water through the poor mining town downstream – sets the scene for Waiting for the Rainbow. Nearly three thousand people died in the flood. It was hard to pick this book up, because at the time the horrible news from Hurricane Katrina was still coming in, but the flood in this book is more of a passing plot point. It happens, and the characters move on, picking up the pieces of their lives.
Orphaned Charlotte Lange lives in Johnstown, Pennsylvania with her grandparents and two other orphaned girls, Rose and Isabel Holliman, whom the Langes took in after their parents were killed. All three girls are inseparable best friends, like sisters. But Charlotte can’t bring herself to tell them about her deepening feelings for Braedan Egan, a young miner in the local coal mines who has been a friend of her family for years. Although she’s loved Braedan ever since she was a child, now she’s starting to realize she really loves him. But he doesn’t seem to notice that she’s growing up, and Charlotte watches in longing as Braedan flits from girl to girl.
When Charlotte’s grandparents are murdered and the girls are left alone, Braedan and his brother, Chas, step in to help them and move into their house. Braedan does know that Charlotte’s growing up, and he’s well aware that she’s becoming a beautiful woman, but he can’t take advantage of her. Besides, he’s just a coal miner, and will be for years to come, since he made a vow to his dead parents to put his brother through medical school. His hopes and dreams of studying law are on hold indefinitely, possibly forever. But when Chas goes off to university, Braedan is left alone with all three girls. Eventually the sparks ignite between him and Charlotte, only to be abruptly put out when Charlotte is forced into marriage with another young man. A local mill owner, despairing of his “idiot” son ever amounting to anything, coerces Charlotte into marrying his son Louie by threatening to have Braedan framed for the unsolved murder of a local prostitute. Heartsick, Charlotte marries the sweet gentle Louie, knowing Braedan won’t understand. When he finally accepts that it’s true, that she’s another man’s wife, Braedan plunges into despair and marries a local girl who claims to be carrying his child. And there’s still that dam at the top of the hill, older and weaker every day.
Both Charlotte and Braedan are young, fourteen and eighteen respectively at the start of the book. Historically, of course, young people, especially in hard-working towns like Johnstown, were far more grown-up in many ways than fourteen and eighteen year olds today, but they are still teenagers, and act like it at times. There’s some sulking and shouting, and the five young people often bicker like siblings. Still, there’s an element of young love that was very sweet and touching.
The main drawback of the book is how much ground it tries to cover. Not only do we have Charlotte and Braedan, in search of their happily ever after despite their first marriages, we also have Isabel, who makes a disastrous marriage as well; Rose, who is quietly in search of someone to love; a series of murders that no one seems able to solve even partially; and the impending tragedy of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club dam. And the story is spread out over three years. That was actually my biggest problem with the book: time goes by in leap and jumps, and often isn’t indicated except by some passing remark that it had been six months since this-or-that (i.e., the last chapter) had happened. It was hard to keep track of the time, and just as you got involved in one plot line, the book would switch to another one. I thought the suspense plot, in particular, could have been eliminated altogether. With this much plot and this many characters, the pacing was uneven and the character development suffered, just from lack of space.
Waiting for the Rainbow is set in an unusual and interesting time in American history, and yet doesn’t quite revolve around the tragedy at its center. The great flood is just something that happens, sweeping away a few inconvenient characters but not consuming the story. The characters were charming and engaging, but the story went in so many different directions it was hard to be completely drawn in. I’ll check out Ms. George’s next book, to see if she can rein in the plot a little bit and give her characters the space they richly deserve.