July 08, 2020

Until Niagara Falls

Written by Jennifer Maruno
168 pp.
Ages 8-12
February 2020

Living in Niagara Falls, nine-year-old Brenda and her classmates have been given an end-of-year project to research an extraordinary person who made the Falls famous. Brenda chooses the Great Blondin, an acrobat who walked a tightrope across the Niagara Gorge in the mid-1800s, seeing his feat as courageous as well as amazing. But courage is not limited to the exceptional. Sometimes it’s standing up in the everyday for what is right against those who would have you think otherwise.

It's 1960 and Brenda meets new student Maureen Sullivan when asked to accompany her home. Because Brenda sees her own life as rather lacklustre, an only child who works hard at school and lives with her father and Gran who is very steadfast in the right way to do just about everything, she is intrigued by Maureen whose life is both unconventional and unruly, even if she gives Brenda the chicken pox. Though she recognizes that Maureen’s family has less money than her own, living in a small shabby house filled with kids, Brenda is fascinated by the girl who peels gum off the pavement to eat, and dares Brenda to break rules and take on some risky challenges. Brenda decides “Maureen had to be the most amazing girl I had ever met” (pg. 15) and is delighted that she'll be part of her summer.

While Brenda is impressed with Maureen’s liveliness and her clever ideas, she does recognize that Maureen does a lot of scheming: finagling invitations for lunch; grabbing beer empties stored outside a restaurant to cash in for popsicles; pinching most of the ballots for a pickle slogan contest; blackmailing her eldest sister; and even getting new clothes from Gran for church.  But when it becomes evident that Maureen is a thief who finds a way to blame others for her misdeeds and that her friendship with Brenda is contingent about what Brenda can do for Maureen, Brenda has to show the courage of the Great Blondin and walk a shaky path between friendship and enmity.

Until Niagara Falls was recently included on the recommended summer reading list of the Forest Teen Committee, surprising as the book is clearly written for middle-graders. Still a good story is a good story and by capturing the essence of a different time but with circumstances familiar to many–making a new friend with someone very different than yourself–Jennifer Maruno has captured the attention of teen readers. There's humour–Maureen has a nickname for just about everyone–and hardships, compassion and meanness. There is a summer of swimming at the pool, going to the CNE and the library, hanging with friends, new and old, and pickles. (You'll have to read the book to understand that one.) Until Niagara Falls is a true coming of age story, with Brenda learning more about what her family means to her, that friends are those dearer than just temporary excitement, and that she can accommodate many in her big heart.

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