Kathleen George is the author of The Johnstown Girls, a novel about the famous Johnstown flood. She has also written seven mysteries set in Pittsburgh: A Measure of Blood, Simple, The Odds, which was nominated for the Edgar® Award from the Mystery Writers of America, Hideout, Afterimage, Fallen, and Taken. George is also the author of the short story collection The Man in the Buick and editor of another collection, Pittsburgh Noir. She is a professor of theater arts and creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1936, life on the road means sleeping on the bus or in hotels for blacks only. After finishing her tour with Nobel Sissel’s orchestra, nineteen year-old Lena Horne is walking the last few blocks to her father’s hotel in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. She stops at a lemonade stand and meets a Lebanese American girl, Marie David. Marie loves movies and adores Lena, and their chance meeting sparks a relationship that will intertwine their lives forever. Lena also meets Josiah Conner, a charismatic teenager who helps out at her father Teddy’s hotel. Josiah often skips school, dreams of being a Hollywood director, and has a crush on Lena. Although the three are linked by a determination to be somebody, issues of race, class, family, and education threaten to disrupt their lives and the bonds between them.
Lena’s father wants her to settle down and give up show business, but she’s entranced by the music and culture of the Hill. It’s a mecca for jazz singers and musicians, and nightspots like the Crawford Grill attract crowds of blacks and whites. Lena table-hops with local jazzmen as her father chaperones her through the clubs where she‘ll later perform. Singing makes her feel alive, and to her father’s dismay, reviewers can’t get enough of her. Duke Ellington adores her, Billy Strayhorn can’t wait to meet her, and she becomes “all the rage” in clubs and Hollywood for her beauty and almost-whiteness. Her signature version of “Stormy Weather” makes her a legend. But after sitting around for years at MGM as the studio heads try to figure out what to do with her, she isn’t quite sure what she’s worth.
Marie and Josiah follow Lena’s career in Hollywood and New York through movie magazines and the Pittsburgh Courier. Years pass until their lives are brought together again when Josiah is arrested for the murder of a white man. Marie and Lena decide they must get Josiah out of prison—whatever the personal cost.
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, Pennsylvania. Thousands perished in what was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history at the time. As we witness in 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 Bragdon and Nina Collins set out to interview 103-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 it haunts Nina, who is determined to help Ellen find her missing half.
Novelist Kathleen George masterfully blends a 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.