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Cathy Marie Buchanan: Tenacious writer who creates colorful historical novels about resilient women

Writers on Resilience series, highlighting Cathy Marie Buchanan

As a podcaster for justice, I stand with my sisters from the Women of Color Podcasters Community. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police. This is a continuation of the systemic racism pervasive in our country since its inception and we are committed to standing against racism in all its forms.

Cathy as a young girl

“Back in high school, I was—and continue to be—a terrible speller. There was no part of me back in high school that ever thought I could be a writer…When I headed off to university, one of the criteria I used for picking my courses was that there was no essay requirement. And I graduated with a degree in biochemistry without writing a single essay.”

Discovering she was a writer later in life, Canadian Cathy Marie Buchanan is the first author in my “Writers on Resilience” series. She has published three historical novels: The Day the Falls Stood Still in 2009, The Painted Girls in 2012, and Daughter of Black Lake, on my birthday in October 2020.

Cathy grew up with three sisters and one brother in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Her parents were teachers, so her childhood was filled with wonderful two-month-long family road trips, like traveling all the way to Belize one year.

Cathy (next to her mom) with her parents and three of her siblings
Cathy (next to her mom) with her parents and three of her siblings
“I do think it might be connected to my love of historical fiction. I do love travel…I love that immersion in another place. When you’re writing historical fiction, you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in another time and place, so I wonder if the two are connected.”

Cathy has three sons like I do, although hers are a bit older than mine. They are proud of her accomplishments as a writer.

Cathy with her three tall sons, the oldest standing on the stairs to boost his height
Cathy with her three tall sons, the oldest standing on the stairs to boost his height

After her oldest son, Jack, read her first novel when he was 16, he closed the book, looked at her, and said,

“Like wow, Mom. So weird because your book is as good as other people’s.”

Before becoming an author, Cathy earned a bachelor’s in biochemistry and an MBA, and she worked for IBM in finance and technical sales for a decade. She’s always had an artistic bent, though, studying classical ballet, sewing her own clothes, and taking art classes at night. Night school was where she finally took a creative writing class after avoiding writing as long as she could.

“I put pen to paper for the first time when I was 35, and I had my first novel published when I was 45. If anyone had told my high school self I would be a writer someday, I would have laughed them down the street.”

Her interest in history also appeared later in life, and she loves the research required to write historical fiction.

“I’m definitely a writer who has to be told to stop the research and start writing.”
Page from Daughter of Black Lake Book Group Guide

I can see Cathy’s creativity and marketing skills vividly in her wonderful website, which includes reading guides for each of her books, in addition to a wonderful Book Club Kit for Daughter of Black Lake that includes discussion questions, trivia, an interview with Cathy, tea suggestions, and recipes including the Violet Gin and Tonic with the beautiful Empress gin, which we discovered through our close friends and since the podcast episode, invested in our own bottle!

Cathy happily joins book groups discussing her books. If you’re interested in having Cathy join your book group meeting, fill out the form on her website.

I asked Cathy about each of her books, which are described below with words from her website (click the link in the title to go directly to Cathy's website).

The Day the Falls Stood Still

Set during WWI in Niagara Falls, The Day the Fall Stood Still is an homage to Cathy’s hometown, Niagara Falls, and it was on my Best Books for 2010 list. It’s a love story between young Bess Heath, who comes from an upper-class family, and river man Tom Cole, who is based on a real-life person, William Red Hill.

The real William Red Hill on the right
The real William Red Hill on the right

1915. The dawn of the hydroelectric power era in Niagara Falls. Seventeen-year-old Bess Heath has led a sheltered existence as the youngest daughter of the director of the Niagara Power Company. After graduation day at her boarding school, she is impatient to return to her picturesque family home near the falls. But when she arrives, nothing is as she left it. Her father has lost his job at the power company, her mother is reduced to taking in sewing from the society ladies she once entertained, and Isabel, Bess’s vivacious older sister, is a shadow of her former self. She has shut herself in her bedroom, barely eating and harboring a secret.

The night of her return, Bess meets Tom Cole by chance on a trolley platform, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to him against her family’s strong objections. He is not from their world. Rough-hewn and fearless, he lives off what the river provides and has an uncanny ability to predict the whims of the falls. His daring river rescues render him a local hero and cast him as a threat to the power companies that seek to harness the falls for themselves. As the couple’s lives become more fully entwined, Bess is forced to make a painful choice between what she wants and what is best for her family and her future.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of Niagara Falls, at a time when daredevils shot the river rapids in barrels and great industrial fortunes were made and lost as quickly as lives disappeared, The Day the Falls Stood Still is an intoxicating debut novel.

Visiting Niagara Falls in 2009 with my own three sons
Visiting Niagara Falls in 2009 with my own three sons

Cathy describes her growing-up years in Niagara Falls as a little wild. As a young person, she didn’t realize it’s not normal to do seasonal work. The drinking age across the border in Niagara Falls, NY, was 18, so young people enjoyed crossing the border to party in the United States.

Cathy treasures the memories of growing up among the stunning natural beauty of the falls, in addition to the Niagara Falls adventurous lore. She grew up hearing all about people like Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive going over the falls in a barrel (WHEN SHE WAS 62 YEARS OLD!), and William Red Hill, who inspired her own writing by rescuing more than 50 people from the river and .

All of Cathy’s novels have spirited, strong women who face great hardships, my kind of grit and resilience stories.

“We often end up writing what we know…my mum is an incredibly strong woman. She’s 89 years old, and she’s a force to be reckoned with. She could figure out how to make anything happen for her kids and gave us every opportunity, but certainly taught us a lot of life lessons along the way.”
Cathy with her “force to be reckoned with” mom
Cathy with her “force to be reckoned with” mom

Her novels are also full of strong sister relationships, no doubt influenced by growing up with three sisters.

“These preoccupations do find their way onto the page, intentionally or not.”

I asked Cathy about the title of her novel.

“The day the falls stood still is a real day. It was in the mid-1800s…an ice dam formed…so the water stopped flowing…The people of Niagara Falls woke up, and there was no water going over their falls. There was no thunder, and there was no mist…Nobody understood what was happening, and then eventually the ice dam broke…and the water came back like a tidal wave.”

The Day the Falls Stood Still was met with great acclaim, including the New York Times Bestseller List, a Barnes & Noble Recommends Selection, Barnes & Noble Best Book, Indienext Pick, and CBC Canada Reads Top 40 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade.

The Painted Girls

The Painted Girls is about sisters Marie and Antoinette Van Goethem, who modeled for the artist and sculptor Edgar Degas. The book intertwines their story with three real-life murders of the day.

Cathy at age 18, studying ballet
Cathy at age 18, studying ballet

A heartrending, gripping novel set in belle époque Paris and inspired by the real-life model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged 14 and by the era's most famous criminal trials.

Following their father’s sudden death, the Van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where she will be trained to enter the famous Ballet and meet Edgar Degas. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds employment—and the love of a dangerous young man—as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s Naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir. Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.”

Cathy noted that poor ballet girls would have traveled in the same underbelly of Paris as the murderers.

“Unlike what we would think today…where we assume that ballet had always been a high-minded pursuit of privileged young girls, back in 1880s Paris, it was the downtrodden, the poor young girls who were sent to the Paris Opera Ballet School to find a better life.”

Cathy greatly enjoyed her research trip to Paris, as she was given permission to see a class of 14-year-old girls studying ballet at the Paris Opera Ballet School. She also got to visit Marie Van Goethem’s lodging, thanks to the fact that Degas had written her address on a sketch 140 years ago.

The Painted Girls was a #1 Canadian National Bestseller, New York Times Bestseller, NPR Best Book, Goodhousekeeping Best Book, Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist, People Magazine Pick, Entertainment Weekly “Must List” Selection, Indienext Pick, Chatelaine Book Club Pick, and Ontario Public Library Evergreen Award Winner.

Daughter of Black Lake

Daughter of Black Lake appeared at the top of my Best Books for 2020. Cathy was inspired in 2002, when she opened the newspaper to see a photograph of an unnervingly well-preserved 2,000-year-old human body.

Researching Daughter of Black Lake in the UK Butser Ancient Farm
Researching Daughter of Black Lake in the UK Butser Ancient Farm

In 2002, I opened the newspaper to see a photograph of an unnervingly well-preserved 2000-year-old human body. I could not lift my gaze from the gentle face—the finely creased skin, the matted hair, the beard stubble that appeared as freshly grown as that of any man. The rope noose that brought death was still looped around the neck. The accompanying article explained that the chemical nature of the peat bog, from which the body was unearthed, had enabled the flesh and skin to survive across millennia, providing clues to the world in which the man lived and died.

Butser Ancient Farm
Butser Ancient Farm

I read about others, most particularly Lindow Man, a 2,000-year-old bog body that was discovered in 1984 near Wilmslow, Cheshire in a peat bog formed by the once much larger Black Lake. Scientific study determined that before the body was deposited in the ancient lake, the head was bashed, the neck garroted, and the throat slit. The findings were in keeping with a sort of ritualistic overkilling that archaeologists had seen elsewhere and that they surmised was undertaken as an offering to earn the favour of multiple gods. Though human sacrifice of the age typically involved individuals considered of lesser value, further study of Lindow Man suggested that he was highborn, perhaps even a druid who went willingly to his death.

Using Lindow Man as bedrock, Cathy explored a story of 2,000 years ago in pagan Britain. She wondered how people would respond if they lived in fear of the way the gods might react in certain situations.

“I got really curious about a society that practiced human sacrifice. But more than that, I was really curious about the beauty and simplicity of a society that lived and breathed human rituals, and it was real