1888: Elizabeth Haberlin, of the Pittsburgh Haberlins, spends every summer with her family on a beautiful lake in an exclusive club. Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains above the working class community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the private retreat is patronized by society’s elite. Elizabeth summers with Carnegies, Mellons, and Fricks, following the rigid etiquette of her class. But Elizabeth is blessed (cursed) with a mind of her own. Case in point: her friendship with Eugene Eggar, a Johnstown steel mill worker. And when Elizabeth discovers that the club’s poorly maintained dam is about to burst and send 20 million tons of water careening down the mountain, she risks all to warn Eugene and the townspeople in the lake’s deadly shadow. Present day: On her 18th birthday, genetic information from Lee Parker’s closed adoption is unlocked. She also sees an old photograph of a genetic relative—a 19th century woman with hair and eyes likes hers—standing in a pile of rubble from an ecological disaster next to none other than Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. Determined to identify the woman in the photo and unearth the mystery of that captured moment, Lee digs into history. Her journey takes her from California to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from her present financial woes to her past of privilege, from the daily grind to an epic disaster. Once Lee’s heroic DNA is revealed, will she decide to forge a new fate?
The tragedy of Johnstown, Pennsylvania is not one of the more widely known incidents in American history but it is one of the most devastating. Mary Hogan explores this very real disaster in her new historical fiction novel, The Woman in the Photo.
Elizabeth Haberlin was born and raised to be the model daughter, the perfect society girl who would one day fulfill her sole purpose in life, marrying well. Unfortunately, for her parents, Elizabeth has always known she was meant for something far greater than simply marrying well. In the summer of 1888, Elizabeth is brought face-to-face with her destiny when her small, secluded, and undoubtedly spoiled life comes crashing down around her.
For many years, Elizabeth and her family have summered in the Allegheny Mountains surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. Their private club, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club is frequented by America’s most elite families and is kept completely separate from the mill town of Johnstown below. In fact, the SFF&H Club has so separated themselves from the town below that they even have their own man-made lake and dam. The dam also serves as the bridge from one side of the lake to the other and the lake serves as place for fishing, swimming, and sailing – activities reserved for members only. While the surroundings are gorgeous and the amenities are plentiful, the members of the Club are completely oblivious and/or unconcerned about the tragedy that will come from their private world.
For years, the people of Johnstown have been concerned about the upkeep and maintenance of the dam and even petitioned the SFF&H Club members to see to its safety. With little to no concern for the welfare of those beneath their social standing, the members have consistently ignored the requests and petitions. In the summer of 1888, the dam gave way under the pressure of heavy rain and sub-standard care and quite literally washed away Johnstown and her inhabitants. In the aftermath of what was total devastation, Elizabeth Haberlin learned what it was to be a compassionate and caring human being rather than just a pretty society girl with nothing of substance to offer the world. Alongside Clara Barton and her newly established American Red Cross, Elizabeth worked tirelessly to help the people of Johnstown bury their dead, care for the survivors, and rebuild a town that was washed away. Defying her family and following her conscious, Elizabeth gave up everything she was born to in order to become a useful person.
The Bottom Line: If you have read the synopsis for this book and my review, you know I have completely ignored half of the book in this review. In truth, the half of the book dedicated to Lee Parker and her search for her biological family adds nothing to the overall plot line and I found myself skimming through her chapters in order to get to the good stuff. The Woman in the Photo would not have suffered one bit – and, in fact it may have been made stronger – if the focus was solely on Elizabeth Haberlin, Clara Barton, and the flood of epic proportions. These people, both fictitious and real as well as the devastating natural disaster are more than enough to carry the book and keep the reader engaged. My most engaged moments all involved Elizabeth’s chapters and the life she carved out for herself in the wake of disaster. With the exception of Lee Parker, The Woman in the Photo is a tremendously compelling read that delves into an American tragedy that has all but been forgotten in the modern world. Historical fiction isn’t an easy genre but Hogan’s writing style is strong and she has managed to skillfully bring to life both people and events that are often hard to get readers interested in. Overall, a worthy read if you don’t mind skipping over some bits and pieces here and there.
What’s the story behind THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTO? How did the book come to be? I first had the idea for this book 24 years ago! I’m not kidding. In 1992, my husband, actor Robert Hogan, was in an off-Broadway play called On the Bum, also starring Cynthia Nixon and Campbell Scott. The play was set in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, several years after the epic flood. The characters talked about a “lake in the sky” which piqued my curiosity. A few days later, I went to the library to read about such strange geography. That’s when I read the real story of the Johnstown disaster. Wow. I was blown away. What a great story! I held my breath for 24 years worrying that someone would write my book before I got a chance to. There are other books out there about the flood, but nothing like mine.
How did you conduct your research for the book? Are any of the characters in the book inspired by real-life people? While on book tour in Pittsburgh for my first young adult novel, The Serious Kiss, I had a free afternoon. So, I rented a car and drove two hours to Johnstown to see it for myself. I could have stayed there for two weeks. There was so much of interest for this Californian girl. Over the years, I would visit twice more. Generously, the President of the Johnstown Heritage Association gave me a day-long tour of everything I needed to tell a compelling tale, including access to the inside of the private Clubhouse which is still standing! Aside from the very real members of the exclusive club: steel titans Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, bankers like Andrew Mellon, U.S. Senator and Attorney General Philander Knox, all the characters are fiction.
How was the writing experience for THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTO different from your experience writing your previous novel, TWO SISTERS? Two Sisters was a process of opening up my heart and spilling its contents onto the page. Inspired by the early death of my older sister, I told a tale of family secrets that I knew all too well. Writing The Woman in the Photo was a completely different experience. First, I read a gazillion historical novels. Then, I read every book I could find about Johnstown. I even read a novel called, Annie Kilburn that was written in 1889 to get a feel for the language of the day. Research, research, research. I was told that women who read historical fiction are fiends about accurate detail. So, my biggest fear about creating a main character who was an upper class woman of the nineteenth century was getting her many corsets right.
Both THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTO and TWO SISTERS center around female relationships. Why do you think readers are so fascinated by the bonds between female family members? Ah, yes. Those bonds are complicated, indeed. I have yet to meet a woman who didn’t have a knotty relationship with her sister or her mother. Even when they are smooth, they are bumpy. In my case, my mother and I were very much alike, and my sister and I were very different. So there were a lot of crossed wires. We hurt each other even when we didn’t know it. My dad and my brothers sort of kept their heads down and watched sports 🙂
For me, the best characters are flawed, striving, loving, selfish, feeling, reacting, deep, curious, furious, and worried—mostly—about their hair. In other words: women.
Is there a particular message you hope readers will take away from THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTO? One of the themes of this novel is: Is DNA your destiny? Are you born to be who you are? Or, can life itself mold you? I would love for readers to finish The Woman in the Photo with the sense that we are all on this earth to be kind to one another. To live together. Even on bad hair days.