Chris Van Allsburg’s stories — Jumanji, Zathura, The Polar Express — usually involve heavy doses of fantasy. But his latest book, Queen of the Falls, focuses on a little-known historical factoid — who was the first person ever to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel?
Turns out to be the last person anyone, then or now, might expect: a 62-year-old charm school director from Bay City, Michigan, named Annie Edson Taylor. In 1901, Annie found herself rapidly running out savings after school closed. Somehow, a newspaper story about the crowds of tourists visiting Niagara Falls that summer gave this mild-mannered widow the idea to make herself rich and famous by going over the falls.
As Van Allsburg describes, the biggest obstacle to Annie’s goal wasn’t surviving the terrifying plunge. It was selling herself as a viable candidate to become a media sensation. She wisely hired herself a manager — a Bay City carnival barker named Frank Russell — to handle the publicity for her stunt. Frank did a great job of stirring up interest in Annie before her ride. Hordes of reporters met Annie’s train as she arrived in Niagara Falls. Hundreds went to see her barrel, on display in a big hotel lobby for ten days before her fateful ride. On October 24, as Annie climbed into the barrel and prepared to be towed to her launching point in the middle of the river, thousands waited along the river and below the falls to see if she would survive.
She did, and yet the story of what happened to Annie afterward is not what someone who had survived such a feat had a right to expect. Van Allsburg says in the video above that he wanted his book to be not only a look at an amazing undertaking but also at the America of Annie’s day.
Of course, the story is just part of Van Allsburg’s package. As he has shown time and again in his earlier books, Van Allsburg has a knack for imbuing heavily-rendered pencil drawings with an unbelievable amount of liveliness and suspense. From the expressions of disbelief on the faces of the people listening to Annie’s plans, to her look of terror as she tosses inside her heavily-padded barrel, to the churning water of the rapids leading to the falls itself, Van Allsburg’s drawings are a perfect match for his story.
Queen of the Falls is an amazing tale of the power of nature — and of the little old lady who might be considered the precursor of today’s reality-show stars. And for kids, it’s a vivid demonstration that you don’t have to be young to do something really, really dumb in pursuit of fame and fortune.