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June's Pick of the Month: 'Waterproof: A Novel of the Johnstown Flood '

Written by witf.org | Jun 7, 2012 4:35 PM

A Pennsylvania-born Penn-State graduate, teacher-turned-author Judith Redline Coopey weaves together historical events, challenging parables, and fictionalized stories from her home in Arizona.  Her latest book, Waterproof: A Novel of the Johnstown Flood (Fox Hollow Press, 2012), is a testament to the far-reaching hold that places of origin have on people. 

Though Coopey has moved a half-continent away from her native Altoona, Western Pennsylvania still holds primacy in her imagination.  Her critically acclaimed earlier novel, Redfield Farm, offers an intimate portrait of a Quaker family who participates in the Underground Railroad in Bedford County, PA.

Now, in Waterproof, Coopey celebrates those women and men who refuse to migrate after Johnstown’s cataclysmic storm-incited dam-bursting flood of May 31, 1889.  Across three generations, the results are the same.  The closer to home flood victims stay, the safer and more emotionally satisfying their lives prove to be.  This is despite the wide-ranging tragedy of many hundreds of people killed, the destruction of homes and businesses, and the uprooting of civic life.  Those who choose to remain are able to thrive again because of the courage they find within themselves. 

This fascinating moral geography holds true throughout heroine (and narrator) Pamela McRae’s family.  Her younger sibling tragically drowns in the flood waters after venturing just a few blocks from his home.  Her elder son’s choice of far-off Bucknell for college, instead of Pitt, presages a later fatal trek further East to the battlefields of World War One.

Time and again, the characters in this novel have opportunities either to dissolve into overwhelming grief, to seek restitution in vengeful anger, or to act courageously and redemptively.  Those who abandon Johnstown, or even simply wander away, are held culpable here; they may earn worldly riches or receive public accolades, but they lead empty, embittered lives.  By contrast, the heroine, the man she marries, her housemate, and her younger son all eventually make hard, morally grounded choices.  In doing so, they actively reshape their personal circumstances.  They prove themselves devoted to their families.  They are outspoken in advocating the reconciliation of their fractured community, deeply riven by social unrest and marred by racial bigotry at the turn of the century.  In both their private lives and their professional endeavors, they are steadfast in their commitment to Johnstown’s revitalization.  And they reap the dual rewards of satisfying work and companionate marriages.  

Such happy conclusions do not make Waterproof a romance.  Indeed, Coopey’s narrative consistently opposes any easy solutions to the novel’s several interwoven romantic stories.  Women typically find disappointment rather than fulfillment from their lovers.  This is not the story of couples who unite.  It is not about anything so commonplace, or commonly misunderstood – the narrator would have us believe – as falling in love.  Rather, it is about love’s manifold consequences, both the costs of selfish love, and the benefits of loving others more than oneself. 

By alternating between the heroine Pamela’s recollections of the 1889 flood and the immediate aftermath, and Pamela’s almost-grandmotherly perspective in 1939 as the fiftieth anniversary nears, Waterproof sweeps readers up in its dramatic story lines.  There are riots, courtroom trials, tea shops, hunting shacks, wagon rides, snowball fights, porch conversations, graveyard trysts, mountain picnics, and terrorist bombings.  Coopey frames these fictional aspects in well-researched history.  The novel will inspire readers to visit the Johnstown Flood Museum and National Memorial, and to delve into other accounts like David McCullough’s award-winning narrative history, The Johnstown Flood (1987).

Waterproof is an especially appropriate choice for June 2012’s “Pick of the Month” because this June marks the 40th Anniversary of Central Pennsylvania’s own infamous, record-setting flood, caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.  With 18 inches of rain in a matter of days, $14.3 billion in damage state-wide (in today’s dollars), and even the governor’s needing to be rescued by boat, Agnes still ranks as the worst natural disaster in Pennsylvania’s history, with the Susquehanna River’s highest recorded flood levels.  [Click here to read USA Today’s report about it 2002.]  [Read more about flooding in our region here.]

Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar Bookstore-Café will host a series of free public programs commemorating the 1972 Agnes Flood on Saturday, June 16, 2012

Children’s Storytime that morning at 10 a.m. will feature stories and crafts about rain. 

In a Panel Discussion from 3 to 4:30 p.m., three prominent speakers will compare urban communities’ experiences of floods from the nineteenth century to the present day.  Waterproof author Judith Redline Coopey will discuss the historical circumstances of the 1889 Johnstown Flood.  Harrisburg historian Jeb Stuart will recount the transformation of the capital region in the aftermath of 1972’s Agnes Flood.  Eminent playwright and cultural scholar Lenwood Sloan will examine the legacies of race and migration in New Orleans after 2004’s Hurricane Katrina.  Audience members will be encouraged to ask questions, participate in the discussion, and share their own flood memories. 

A Public Reception will honor Coopey at 4:30 p.m., with free refreshments.

At 5 p.m., Coopey will give a “Book Salon” style talk on Waterproof.  She will read selections from the novel, share her experiences researching life in 1880s-1930s Johnstown, discuss the challenges of writing historical fiction, and answer audience members’ questions.  Afterwards, Coopey will be available to sign copies of her novels.

Listen to Radio Smart Talk’s Scott LaMar interview Coopey at the WITF podcast.

Published in Pick of the Month

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