The word “daredevil” conjures up different images for different people. Speaking for myself, when I hear it I instantly picture someone like Evel Knievel leaping over cars on a motorcycle. I do not picture sixty-two year old charm school matrons climbing into barrels. The name “Chris Van Allsburg” also conjures up a variety of interesting images. A person might think of his books The Mysteries of Harris Burdick or The Sweetest Fig (or, my personal favorite, The Stranger). And until now, they also would probably not picture sixty-two year old charm school matrons climbing into barrels. Yet now both the word and the author/illustrator have become inextricably linked to one another, and it is all because of a little old lady who died nearly one hundred years ago. For the first time, Chris Van Allsburg has put aside the fantastical for something infinitely more intriguing: Real world history with just a touch of the insane. And it all begins with the first person to ever go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
The facts about the Niagara Falls are well known. “The water drops from a height that is as tall as a seventeen-story building.” Fact of the matter is, you’d have to be nutty to even consider going over such falls. Yet that was the idea that appealed so much to Ms. Annie Edson Taylor. A former charm school teacher, Annie was sixty-two years old and in real need of money. In a flash it came to her: Go over the edge of Niagara Falls in a barrel and reap the rewards that come. Efficient, Annie commissioned the barrel she would travel in, and found folks willing to help her carry out the plan. When the time came, everything went without a hitch and best of all Annie lived to tell the tale. Unfortunately, fame and fortune were not in the cards. Folks weren’t interested in hearing an old woman talk about her death-defying adventure, and on more than one occasion she found her barrel stolen or folks taking credit for her own deed. Ten years later a reporter found her and asked for her story again. Annie confessed that she didn’t become rich like she wanted to, but as she said, “That’s what everyone wonders when they see Niagara . . . How close will their courage let them get to it? Well, sir, you can’t get any closer than I got.”
This is not the first time I have encountered Ms. Taylor’s story. I’m a fan of the podcast Radio Lab, which makes science palatable to English majors like myself. One such podcast told the story of Annie Taylor, and it was a sad tale. So sad, in fact, that when I picked up Queen of the Falls I naturally assumed that Van Allsburg would sweeten, cushion, and otherwise obscure some of the difficulties Annie faced after her fateful trip. To my infinite delight, I found the man to be a sterling author of nonfiction for kids. He doesn’t pad the truth, but at the same time he finds that spark in a true-life story that gives it depth and meaning. On the surface, what could we possibly learn from the depressing reminder of an old woman who did something risky, succeeded, failed to be adequately compensated, and then died poor after all? It all comes down to that interview Annie conducted ten years after her thrilling run. Van Allsburg zeroes in on Ms. Taylor’s words. He gives her the last say in the book and manages to focus Annie’s story not on its subsequent failure, but on the accomplishment that belongs to her alone: She really was the first person to ever go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and to this day she “remains the only woman to have gone over the falls alone.”
I assumed that this book marked a startling departure for Mr. Van Allsburg. As the man behind the gentle surrealism of Jumanji or The Polar Express, a story about a real-life sixty-two year-old stuntwoman sounded like a whole new world. Yet in his Author’s Note at the end, Van Allsburg notes that “When I decided to write about Annie, I believed I was undertaking a project quite different from the fantasies and surreal tales I’d become accustomed to creating. This was not the case. There is something decidedly fantastic and not quite real about Niagara Falls, about Annie’s adventure, and about the stories that can unfold when imagination, determination, and foolhardiness combine to set humans off in pursuit of their goals.”
To the best of my knowledge Chris Van Allsburg has always written his own books. Librarians like myself may think of him primarily as an artist, but it is his storytelling that sets him apart from the pack. In this, his first nonfiction title, the man lays out the story of Annie’s life and adventure in such a way that folks can’t help but get caught up in it. He knows where to break up the action and how much to put in. It’s also interesting to note that for all her age, the author refers to his heroine more often than not as “Annie”. He brings the reader closer to his subject. Were he to refer to her as “Ms. Taylor”, the subliminal message to child readers would be that they were reading about someone like one of their teachers or elders. The subtle difference of substituting her last name for her first brings Annie closer to them. It gives her more dimensions than as a mere elderly daredevil.
I was fascinated by Van Allsburg’s choices of how to present one scene or another too. Picture book illustrators have reinterpreted the lives of famous (and not so famous) people for decades. But Van Allsburg’s take on Annie felt different, and I tried to figure out why this was. There is a moment in this book when a down-on-her-luck Ms. Edison scans The Bay City Bugle for jobs or ideas. On the left-hand page you see her resting her head on her hand, seemingly uninterested. On the right-hand page it’s as if a light bulb has gone on in her brain. Everything about her is electrified and in the midst of her idea she has inadvertently knocked the flower vase on her table over. It’s the “Ah ha!” moment, and feels almost cinematic. And for that scene I found myself wondering if it was almost TOO cinematic for a real world story. After all, Mr. Allsburg is taking the liberty of imagining what Ms. Edison looked like at that time. Fortunately, this feeling passed almost as quickly as it arrived. Well, of course he had to extrapolate what she felt. That’s what artists do. What’s important is that every picture in this book is accounted for in other histories of Annie’s adventure and life. Just because this particular artist is better at capturing images in a realistic way, what makes his book any different from the thousands of other biographical titles out there where folks illustrate the lives of the famous?
For some reason this book felt almost more fantastical than your normal illustrated fare. Maybe it’s the unexpected shock of seeing Mr. Van Allsburg tackle the real world. Under his hand you’d half expect Annie’s barrel to crest the edge of the falls and then float serenely onward and upwards into the sky. To combat this feeling, Van Allsburg pulls out all his writing chops. He ratchets up the tension when Annie is placed in the barrel. Not only do you get to see her barrel itself, but he also includes quite a few interior shots, so that there’s no doubt as to where exactly she is and what she’s feeling at a given moment. The most impressive image in this book, though, comes right after the author has written, “Fred Truesdale had told her the water at the very edge of the falls would be still for a moment. When she felt that, he warned, she must hold on for dear life and pray. Which was exactly what happened next. For a few seconds –one … two … three – Annie floated slowly and upright. She could hear the falls roaring, even through her thick oak barrel.” Then the reader turns the page and encounters a sight that makes your heart drop. For two pages, Van Allsburg has dedicated himself to replicating the sheer majesty of the falls, from the top. That sheer drop confronts you, and even as you make out the figure of the barrel a mere two feet from the edge, the text simply reads, “ ‘Oh Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.” Natural, beautiful, you-are-there dramatic tension. It’s the kind of moment you wish every children’s non-fiction picture book contained. It gives respect to what the subject went through. The artist is also no stranger to using black and white as a medium, but lately his books have taken on a sepia tone. This color palette didn’t make a ton of sense when creating books like Probuditi! but they certainly fit the bill in a book like Queen of the Falls perfectly! You get the feeling that you’re really seeing turn-of-the-century stills from the life of Annie Edison.
Considering that this is a work of nonfiction, it seems odd to say that the book this reminded me of the most was Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. Yet both books take realistic pictures and use their sepia-toned worlds to inform our own. That said, the book that would probably pair better in terms of subject matter would have to be the Julie Cummings title Women Daredevils: Thrills, Chills, and Frills (in which Annie does indeed make an appearance). I’ve always loved Van Allsburg’s magical realism fantasies, but this new venture into reality itself is so appealing that I can only hope that he continues in this vein for some time. A book that honors its subject and grants her posthumous dignity.
On shelves April 4th.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
A great interview with Mr. Van Allsburg, showing additional photos of the real Annie, plus info on the teacher that modeled as Annie for the book.