January 08, 2001 12:00 PM

by Kathleen Cambor

A large cast swirls through this evocative, if flawed, first novel set against the Johnstown Flood, which killed more than 2,000 on Memorial Day, 1889. Ragtime-style fictional creations—such as Civil War veteran Frank Fallon; Grace, the librarian with the hidden past; and Nora, the scientist with the secret passion—share the stage with true-life figures Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon. But the story’s central character is the poorly maintained South Fork Dam, site of a gentlemen’s hunting and fishing club. Cambor’s strength lies less in her storytelling than in her sense of period, place and people. To her, Andrew Mellon was “raised by aphorism and admonishment.” In Cambor’s hands, one can almost hear the rustle of petticoats, the sound of the (doomed) crowds lining the Johnstown Memorial Day parade route and, most ominously, the water rampaging across the earth. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $23)

Bottom Line: Reading for a rainy day

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