Monday, May 23, 2011

Queen of the Falls

It's been said that to fully appreciate Shakespeare's King Lear one should be middle-age or older, as a younger audience isn't capable of grasping the horror of old age. I feel the same about Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg. To his credit, Allsburg does his best to mitigate the depressing story of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. He portrays Taylor as the plucky enterprising woman that she was, coming up with the scheme when she was in her early sixties, devising a barrel that would withstand the falls, and bravely entering the barrel not knowing if she would survive, and if she did, in what condition.

But Allsburgh can't hide the underlying circumstances that propelled Taylor to undertake such a perilous adventure. For Taylor wasn't your typical daredevil, eager to risk life and limb for the thrill of it. No, Taylor was desperate.  Left a widow with little money, she faced the prospect of spending her declining years in the poorhouse. With few options open to her, she convinced herself that going over the falls would make her rich. Allsburg describes her quest to conquer Niagara Falls in gripping detail. Truly, the reader feels as if he or she is inside the barrel right along with Taylor.

Amazingly, Taylor survived with only a few minor cuts and bruises. Once recovered, she expected to cash in on her daring deed. Frank Russell, a promoter she hired, took her on tours, the pair riding on trains from town to town with the barrel. Fame and fortune failed to materialize. Again and again, the audience was dismayed to find Taylor, a plump grandmotherly type, the heroic conquerer of the falls. Put bluntly, she didn't fit the part.  After Russell absconded with the barrel, Taylor was able to get it back. She hired a second promoter, but he too stole the barrel, this time for good. Not one to quit, Taylor had another barrel made and for years displayed it in a park near Niagara Falls, selling souvenir postcards and pamphlets about her famous achievement. She did this for years, never earning much money.

Allsburg ends his picture book on an upbeat note, giving Annie Taylor the last words. " was the greatest feat ever performed. And I am content when I can say, "I am the one who did it.'"  

The illustrations by Allsburg, Caldecott winner of The Polar Express, are all done in sepia-tones, helping to set the book firmly in the past. With incredibly detailed realism, they resemble newspaper photos. Yet no camera could capture Taylor's terrified expression inside the barrel as it crashes over the falls.

Children reading or listening to this biography will be caught up in the thrilling tale, and probably won't be aware of its sad undertones. For them, old age is far, far away. Adults, though, hearing news reports of cuts to Social Security, might well ponder Taylor's fate. I know I do.

Queen of the Falls
by Chris Van Allsburg
Houghton Mifflin, 40 pages
Published: April 2011

This week's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Great Kids Books.


  1. Wow, that sounds gripping, depressing and amazing. I wonder if my 8 yo would go for it.

  2. I love Van Allsburg's books, not only for the illustrations, but also for his skills with storytelling; and of course, the expert way the text and images work together.