Friday, March 25, 2011

Living on the Edge: Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg

Along the shoreline, waiting crowds spotted Annie's barrel, carried along in a raging river that became more violent as it raced toward the awful drop. The widow was on her way.

For a few seconds--one...two...three--Annie floated slowly and upright. She could hear the falls roaring, even through her thick oak barrel.

"Oh, Lord," she whispered, and then she was gone

Annie Taylor is in a pickle. Grown gray and elderly and stout, she can no longer attract enough young students to her Mrs. Taylor's Charm School. It's 1891, and Social Security is four decades in the future, and Annie somehow has to find another way to support herself in her golden years.

But it is also the era of P. T. Barnum and newspaper sensationalism, and Annie's considerable intelligence and imagination lead her to an outrageous financial security plan: if she could be the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls, she could earn enough in public appearances to support herself comfortably into old age.

For an unimpressive-looking former teacher of etiquette and the waltz, Annie Taylor turns out to have remarkable skills. She hires a publicist and throws herself into the design and building of her own space capsule, a super-sturdy watertight barrel complete with safety belt and padding to protect her during her passage over the mighty falls. Convincing a cooper to construct her barrel is hard enough, and her agent Frank Russell has to do a bit of fudging the facts to persuade the press to cover Annie's upcoming feat, attempting to pass the rotund sixty-two year old matron off as a glamorous globe-trotting forty-two-year-old adventuress. With her image tweaked and her barrel built, all Annie has to do, she hopes, is to survive the event and her future will be secure.

Bravely, she gathers her skirts and climbs aboard the small boat that will ferry her to the falls.

"I will not say goodbye,"she told the reporters and spectators, "for I know I will see you all shortly."

Stopping at a small island near the point of no return above the falls, Annie backs into her barrel, adjusts her padding and belts, and waves goodbye to boatmen who seal her barrel for the final float to the edge.

A shout went up. "Here she comes!" Some faint-hearted spectators screamed as they saw the barrel go over, others cheered, but most just stood silently with their mouths wide open and stared at the foaming water around the bottom of the falls. There was no sign of Annie,not even a piece of oak.

Suddenly the barrel bobbed to the surface.

Chris Van Allsburg's forthcoming Queen of the Falls (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) tells the amazing story of the first person to survive a descent over Niagara Falls. It is not an account with an altogether happy ending. Annie's fame is short-lived and never very lucrative, and she is soon forced to eke out a meagre living selling souvenir postcards of herself and her barrel along the tourists' approach to the Falls.

But in the talented hands of the Caldecott Award-winning Allsburg (for The Polar Express and Jumanji) Annie Taylor reprises her heroic ride as the stalwart adventurer that she really was. Allsburg's sepia-toned pencil illustrations have the look of yellowed newspaper photos , but touches of his signature surrealism can be found in his opening illustration of a seventeen-story brick skyscraper embedded in the falls, in the overturned bud vase spilling its contents over the edge of her table as Annie becomes engrossed in her design drawings, and a broken egg in the foreground spilling from a tin can used as a model for herself inside her barrel. Allsburg also makes good use of his trademark shifting perspectives, changing cinematically from two-page long shots of the falls to dramatic closeups of Annie inside her cascading capsule and her horrified spectators in what is an altogether awesome effort by this noted illustrator.

Author Allsburg tells this strange story like it is, avoiding the urge to fall into a hagiographic biography of this unusual heroine. Since Annie's time, as Van Allsburg reveals in his brief appendix, there have been eight other successful trips over the falls, but if she did not earn the wealth she hoped for, at least in Queen of the Falls the remarkable Annie Taylor finds her share of lasting fame with a new generation as the first of the Niagara Falls daredevils:
" was the greatest feat ever performed," she said years later.

"And I am content when I can say, "I am the one who did it.'"

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