Friendship on a tightrope
Review of Until Niagara Falls by Jennifer Maruno (Dundurn, 2020).
Nine-year-old Brenda lives with her father and grandmother in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Brenda’s mother died when she was young so Gran takes care of her while her father goes out to work. Brenda thrives in that loving environment characterized by nutritious meals, healthy expectations, financial stability and Sunday worship.
For a school project about someone who made Niagara Falls famous, Brenda studies Jean-Francois Gravelet, known as the Great Blondin, the funambulist who walked across the Falls on a tightrope.
Just before the school year ends, a new girl named Maureen joins Brenda’s class. One day, Maureen is unwell and the teacher asks Brenda to help the girl find her way home. Nothing in Brenda’s life has prepared her for Maureen. Scrappy, worldly-wise and rash, the girl has had a hard-scrabble existence and knows how to get around on the street, stealing, lying and taking foolish risks.
Though Brenda is secretly enchanted with the Maureen’s bravery, things begin to unravel when her lying and stealing encroach on Brenda’s safe and predictable world.
Gran, wise to the poverty and neglect that have shaped Maureen’s life, welcomes her to share meals, spend the night and help with errands. But Brenda is bewildered, even angered, by Gran’s response because she knows Maureen is always getting into trouble.
As Brenda learns more about The Great Blondin and tries to navigate her friendship with Maureen, she makes connections between the tightrope Blondin walked and the one she is walking in her friendship with Maureen.
This novel for middle school readers is based on some of author Jennifer Maruno’s childhood experiences growing up in Niagara Falls. Adept characterization, a fast-paced plot and wise insights into pre-teen friendships make this book a delightful read.