Book Review: Three Rivers Rising, A Novel of the Johnstown Flood by Jame Richards

Title:           Three Rivers Rising

Author:       Jame Richards

Publisher:   Random House, Inc., New York NY, 2010, 289pgs.

Copy Source:  purchased on

I bought this book while on a brief Noah’s Ark/flood buying tangent on Over a year ago. And each time I look at it, I think, why did I buy this one? It is YA fiction, which I like as a break between denser reads, and it has a real historic event as a background. All good so far, but then again, it’s all in verse. That can’t be good, right? I’ll probably be cringing through some really forced stuff… Not once. This read smoothly, like prose written in really short lines. It wasn’t far in to the story when I stopped noticing that it was in verse. I was caught up in the various narratives of the five points of view.

Everybody in Johnstown
kids each other about the dam breaking.
We laugh because it always holds.
Papa says we’re laughing off our fear.
– Peter (pg. 7)

Celestia is an upper class girl from Pittsburgh who, along with many other rich families, vacations with her parents and older sister at Lake Conemough. Peter is a hired boy at the lake, whose father is a coal miner in nearby Johnstown. Maura is a child bride and mother of three, who waits for her husband to return from driving a train every day. Kate is a nurse in training, who cannot stop working in response to her grief. And Bertram Whitcomb, Celestia’s father, is a man who feels bound by societies expectations and expects the same of his daughters.

Against the background of the impending flood, we see love and estrangement, class divisions and the heartache trying to cross that divide can cause. With the flood and the aftermath, we see families and relationships torn apart, some lost and some mended. We see transformation, grief and redemption. What started out as a kind of cute little story in verse about a budding romance between classes becomes a story of perseverance that involves the reader and might even touch your heart.

I very vaguely remember having seen a film of this or some other disaster in my junior or senior high days, back when it was film and a projector in the early 80’s, and I couldn’t help thinking that this is the sort of book they should have had me read. It would have had a more lasting impact. Unfortunately, it didn’t exist until 2010. And while the characters are fictional, though some are inspired by real people and events, it would still be a great choice for young adults to read.

4 out of 5 stars, and as a bonus, there is a cameo appearance by Miss Clara Barton of the Red Cross.


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