Posted by: Sally Ingraham | July 22, 2014

Johnstown and Juárez

I have two cities on my mind today. One lies only 67 miles east of my dooryard, while the other would require a journey of over a day.

It’s likely that I’ll visit Johnstown, PA, sometime soon. There’s a nifty incline there, the steepest in the world in fact, which begs to be ridden by me. There’s a cute downtown to poke around in, and a beautiful stone bridge. There’s the Johnstown Flood Museum to visit.

The great flood of 1889 is the background for a book I just finished – Jame Richards’ Three Rivers Rising. It’s a novel in verse, featuring several narrators from various classes of life. 16 year old Celestia spends the summer with her family at a resort on the shores of Lake Conemaugh, a reservoir in the mountains above Johnstown. She falls in love with Peter, the hotel’s hired boy, in defiance of her parents and her social station. Meanwhile, a young mother feeds her babes and stitches a quilt, ears pricked for the special whistle of the locomotive that her husband drives. And heartbroken Kate makes her way through nursing school and toward a new job in Johnstown. Their lives intersect on the last day of May, 1889, when, amid a biblical rainstorm, the earthen dam fails and Lake Conemaugh empties into the valley below.

Although the characterizations were broad, and the relationships un-complicated, I found the book to be interesting and certainly a good introduction to a historical event that has intrigued me for a few months. The format of novel in verse suited the tale well, compelling me along with a wild rush (I read the book in less than 2 hours).

There was a bit of commentary on who was to blame for the disaster, but in the story no fingers were really pointed. The author included a chronology of the South Fork Dam at the end of the book, however, which makes it clear that there was some clear dereliction of duty and lack of responsibility on the part of the private sportsmen’s club that took over the management of the dam in 1879 (members included Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon among others, rich and powerful). I can’t help thinking about some other instances of man messing around with water and failing to control it…we don’t seem to learn!

I plan to read David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood sometime soon, as Richards listed it as her main source for some of the more fascinating stories (of daring rescues and escapes!) and personalities that she learned about.

Three Rivers Rising told the story of a single day of destruction, but another book of poetry that I read recently describes an ongoing disaster. Secrets In the Sand: The Young Women of Juárez is a collection written by Marjorie Agosín (trans. Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman) about the epidemic of feminicide in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The actual numbers are difficult to pin down, but in the preface written by the translator, she quotes Amnesty International’s estimate that between 1993 and 2005 over 370 women were abducted and murdered. (This situation is the basis for Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 which I read earlier this year.)

Marjorie Agosín witnessed the horror of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and being familiar with the pain of ‘the disappeared’ she felt compelled to write poems about the woman who had been killed in Juárez, and the families who must live with that sorrow. Her book adds to the testimony, giving voices to women who have been hushed forever. In a situation where sketchy reporting, falsified evidence, and a lack of investigation or attention from the Mexican justice system is the norm, such testimony is powerful. Like her character Celeste says in I Lived on Butterfly Hill, ‘ “How can we figure things out if we all stay silent?!” ‘

Her poems were quiet, full of grief and lonely, desert imagery. They were sad, but not as provocative as I had expected. I read through them quickly, feeling distanced from them, and therefore from the events they spoke of. Maybe the day was wrong for them, or my mood – but that shouldn’t matter with poetry, I think. It’ll grab you or it won’t.

The last two poems in the collection stopped me in my tracks. They were a whip lash across my heart. They’re written by Guadalupe Morfin, who was appointed by President Vicente Fox in 2003 as the special federal commissioner on violence against women in Ciudad Juárez. She was tasked with coordinating the government’s response to the murders, a daunting prospect considering that she’s up against corrupt police officers and powerful drug cartels. International pressure has finally pushed the authorities into action, but too often they ignore leads and make false accusations and arrests.

No wonder Morfin’s poems are raw and trembling with frustration, vicious with grief. She is in the heart of the horror, looking into its eyes, unwilling to blink first.

The situation has not improved since this book was published in 2006. This New York Times article from 2012 reports a horrific increase in numbers, in fact. And this 2013 article from AlJazeera America talks about a female vigilante amid a culture where ‘Three out of five Mexican females have been physically abused within the past year‘ – in a city where 1,400 women have been killed over the last 20 years. The need for testimony – like the poems and stories of Agosín and Morfin and Bolaño – is more necessary now than ever.

Both of these books left me with questions and the desire to learn and read more, and obviously with an urge to tell someone else about them – and that’s something. A very little something, when faced with those pink crosses, but still. I look forward to visiting Johnstown, PA, and maybe someday I’ll walk the streets of Juárez and –

…love deciphering her secrets

waking among her silences

and taking refuge

in the morning light of the neighboring hills.

– from ‘Land of Ashes’ by Guadalupe Morfin


  1. […] we have here is a failure to communicate writes about two reads, the second in the post is about Secrets In the Sand: The Young Women of Juárez a collection of poems written by Marjorie A… (White Pine Press, 2006; trans. Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman) about the epidemic of feminicide in […]

  2. […] week when I wrote about Three Rivers Rising by Jame Richards, and the Great Flood of 1889, I didn’t really expect to […]

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