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In her first period novel, Kathleen George tackles the Johnstown Flood

Set in 1989, The Johnstown Girls unravels a century-old mystery

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After ripening for 25 years, Kathleen George's story about the Johnstown flood is ready for picking. The Johnstown Girls (University of Pittsburgh Press) is the acclaimed mystery writer's first period novel. Set in 1989, it follows two Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writers — Johnstown native Nina Collins and Ben Bragdon — as they report on 1889's Johnstown flood on its 100th anniversary. They meet 103-year-old Ellen Emerson, a Johnstown resident whom the flood separated from her twin sister. Ellen believes her sister is still alive, and Nina tries to find her.

George grew up in Johnstown and became interested in the flood during that centennial, but "was too new to writing to come up with a really big novel that covered many years and big events."

The Johnstown Flood ranks among the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. Heavy rains and a faulty dam, owned by elite figures such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, led to the deaths of 2,209 people. Two more big floods would occur there, in 1936 and 1977. George's mother lived through both, and threads of her experience are woven into the story.

Nina's memory of trying to reach her mother during the '77 flood are based on the author's own experiences: She no longer lived in Johnstown, and when word of the flood reached George and her sisters, they frantically tried to contact their mother for a day-and-a-half. No luck. The phone lines were dead.

No one was allowed into Johnstown, but when George's old high school boyfriend called, saying he'd forced his way through, the sisters followed. "We drove over trees and over rubble," she says. "We talked the National Guard into letting us in. We found my mother, and she was fine ... [but] there were tractors hanging on top of trees. You forget what water can do, and I think that that [experience] was small, compared to the 1889 flood."

George, known for her Pittsburgh-set Richard Christie detective novels like A Measure of Blood, had to adjust to writing a different kind of fiction. "I do have a bit of a mystery in this one, but the pace is different," she says. "It doesn't operate on threat or fear. It's a much longer puzzle to work out. It has a different rhythm."

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