Ann E. Burg’s Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown, a novel in verse, is a powerful set of interlocking character stories, informed by historical record, that lays bare the tragedy of the dam that burst in the working-class town outside of Pittsburgh, and all that died as a result.
Even worse, the story reminds us that the powerful and wealthy (ie, Andrew Carnegie, etc.), who bought the abandoned dammed-up lake for summer recreation and then failed to invest enough in its upkeep and maintenance, are clearly to blame for the 1889 disaster, and were never really held accountable. They blamed nature, not themselves.
Flooded is told in poetic verse, through the voices of children of the town as they prepare for Decoration Day, honoring veterans of the Civil War. Burg stitches together their stories and voices through some researched historical records, and with the freedom of a fiction writer. The result is a moving quilt of life, from the eyes and lives of young people, brought into the chaos of the flood, and the destruction of the town, and the loss of many, many lives, on that day when the dam breached and the water ran downhill.
The river, too, has a voice here, as it weaves its own story in between narrative sections, with narrow text formatting to visually show the winding path of its waters, and warning us of how it might never be tamed, and is always wild.
The last section of the book, where Burg uses anonymous letters and numbers as identification, is both insightful and, at times, both despairing and hopeful, the wishes of the dead for the survivors to carry on, to press ahead, to make something good in the world, to remember the stories. She even uses faded font texts to indicate those whose lives were taken, their ghost voices rises from the pages like distant music, and those who survived, devastated by loss but intent on moving forward.
As I read Flooded, I was reminded of the great 1874 Mill River Flood in my area of Western Massachusetts, in which a dam burst, towns were destroyed, lives lost or forever altered, and the wealthy — who ignored the upkeep of the dam, were never held accountable. Sound familiar? That river is one I walk by all the time, and the memorials erected and reminders we have (including a map of the flood on a wall of our house) is never far away from our thoughts. And I have Burg’s structure in my mind now, too, and how stories can be told.
Peace (comes after a time),