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The Johnstown Girls

by Kathleen George

Publication Year: 2014

Ellen Emerson may be the last living survivor of the Johnstown flood. She was only four years old on May 31, 1889, when twenty million tons of water decimated her hometown of Johnstown, PA. Thousands perished in what was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history at the time. As we witness in Kathleen George’s new novel, The Johnstown Girls, the flood not only changed the course of history, but also the individual lives of those who survived it. A century later, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters Ben and Nina set out to interview one hundred and four year-old Ellen for Ben’s feature article on the flood. When asked the secret to her longevity, Ellen simply attributes it to “restlessness.” As we see, that restlessness is fueled by Ellen’s innate belief that her twin sister Mary, who went missing in the flood, is somehow still alive. Her story intrigues Ben, but haunts Nina, who is determined to help Ellen find her missing half. Author Kathleen George masterfully blends a factual history of the Johnstown flood into her heartrending tale of twin sisters who have never known the truth about that fateful day in 1889—a day that would send their lives hurtling down different paths. The Johnstown Girls is a remarkable story of perseverance, hard work, and never giving up hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s also a tribute to the determination and indomitable spirit of the people of Johnstown through one hundred years, three generations, and three different floods.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

Title Page, Disclaimer, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. vii-ix

I have so many people to thank that I hesitate to begin for fear of missing someone along the way. Any errors in the manuscript are mine. Any omissions here are my fault—and I hope I don’t make any. Let me start with the late Monty Culver who read my first pass at a Johnstown flood novel and encouraged me. ...


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pp. x

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Chapter 1. Nina: Saturday April 15, 1989

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pp. 1-28

Nina feels an uneasiness that borders on guilt. She is in her hometown. Her mother still lives here in Johnstown, but Nina never told her mother she would be here today, pretended instead that she’s hitching a ride in tomorrow. She hasn’t yet told her mother about Ben. ...

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Chapter 2. Sunday, April 16, 1989

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pp. 29-60

“Aha, there you are!” her mother says, throwing open the screen door. “I got up early, I was so excited.” Right now it’s only eight. Through kisses and hugs her mother asks, “Where’s your ride? Where did he go so fast?” ...

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Chapter 3. Monday, April 17, 1989

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pp. 61-108

Nina takes her car to the Post-Gazette offices most days, though half the time she hates to put more wear on it by taking it on assignment. Anyway, it sounds a lot better than Ben’s car does. This morning the other PG employee who lives in her building, Michelle, taps on her door wanting a ride, as she does most mornings. ...

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Chapter 4. Tuesday, April 18-Saturday, April 22, 1989

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pp. 109-120

At eleven last night, after Ben left, she watched the news again, KDKA this time featuring the heroic fireman, and went to bed wondering if the fireman would indeed read her article the next day. ...

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Chapter 5. Monday, April 24, 1989

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pp. 121-128

When the snow thaws, people begin looking forward to summer and vacations. Not everybody can afford a vacation, of course; some are too poor to go beyond the backyard or the neighborhood park. Immigrant laborers tend not to think in terms of vacations. Work is simply what they do every day. ...

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Chapter 6. Ellen and Anna: Autumn 1907

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pp. 129-178

Melba Van Husen owned the Brownstone in New York that had been broken up into rooms for rent for which she sought working women and NYU students of a certain character. She charged them eight dollars a week and for that they got breakfast and dinner daily, peppered, in each case, by the word respectable, amazingly fit into sentences and paragraphs that would seem to have no particular use for it. ...

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Chapter 7. Saturday, April 29-Sunday, April 30, 1989

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pp. 179-200

Tomorrow is Orthodox Easter Sunday and today Nina is taking Ben to Johnstown to meet her mother properly. There’s another visit to Ellen happening, too, that’s how the weekend plan started, but it’s also time to bring her mother on board about Ben. ...

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Chapter 8. Monday, May 1, 1989

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pp. 201-218

On May 31, 1889, a forty-foot wall of water and debris sped down the mountain from South Fork into the valley that is Johnstown. It hit the city just before 4:10 P.M. More than 2,200 people died and the town was almost completely unrecognizable. ...

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Chapter 9. Ellen: August 26, 1950

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pp. 219-224

The Buick had stalled once, then caught. She thought, “Well, what else to do on a Saturday?” Before she had gone far, she pulled over at a bakery first for a raisin cookie, one of her favorite things, a little like a Fig Newton but full of raisins instead and a good fifteen times the size. On the street strangers greeted her with a hello. ...

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Chapter 10. Tuesday, May 2-Friday, May 5, 1989

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pp. 225-250

“Who was your visitor?” Patricia Hays asks. She’s folding up the walker to put beside Anna’s bed. “You did really well today!” Yes, Hays is the one who is so curious about where Anna lived. ...

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Chapter 11. Saturday, May 6-Sunday May, 7, 1989

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pp. 251-268

Nina is in her car, enjoying the sweet slap of the windshield wipers and the rain—just a sprinkle. She’s not fully awake. Last night, late, she sat with Ben when he came in. She’d been listening to the Pirates on the radio, the end of the game and the talk show after. They’d won, that was great. ...

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Chapter 12. Monday, May 8, 1989

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pp. 269-286

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was a capricious god. In the maelstrom that was the tumbling water of the South Fork Dam, there was a group of people huddled on a roof that floated, and though it was a strange ride, they thought they were safe and that they would live. ...

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Chapter 13. Anna and Ellen: July 1925

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pp. 287-294

The things he led her to: baseball, why she hadn’t paid much attention but the way he talked about it, then took her to a game the whole way over in Homestead—and it turned out she liked it. Once he took her and Ned to a Pirates’ game at Forbes Field, and she liked the baseball fine (Ned loved it, which was wonderful to see), ...

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Chapter 14. Tuesday, May 9–Friday, May 12, 1989

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pp. 295-312

“We hardly ever see them this old. Look at her skin. It’s not bad. I wonder what she used. Good genes, right? If I got this old, mine would be all pocked and horrible.” ...

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Chapter 15. Saturday, May 13-Sunday, May 14, 1989

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pp. 313-332

Nina hardly slept at all and now it’s only six thirty in the morning and she is in her car, almost there. After a while, she decided the tossing was a silly way to spend her time. She got up and wrote a bunch of paragraphs—about twins, about the secret language of twins, and then conjectural paragraphs about a twin seeing an article and knowing—that part could turn out to be fiction, ...

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Chapter 16. Wednesday, May 31, 1989

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pp. 333-335

There are three of them on the stage: Nina, Ellen, and Mary. Sitting in the audience of hundreds is Ruth in the front row, Nancy, tearing up, a few rows back and only two rows from Bobby’s mother, and in the back, standing, as if cheering, Douglas. It’s a big day. ...


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pp. 336

Selected Recommendations for Further Reading and Viewing

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pp. 337-338

E-ISBN-13: 9780822979531
E-ISBN-10: 0822979535
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822944317
Print-ISBN-10: 0822944316

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Twins -- Fiction.
  • Sisters -- Fiction.
  • Floods -- Pennsylvania -- Johnstown (Cambria County) -- History -- 19th century -- Fiction.
  • Suspense fiction. -- gsafd.
  • Historical fiction -- gsafd.
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