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The Terrible Wave

post written by Esther Filbrun

The Terrible Wave, by Marden DahlstedtTitle: The Terrible Wave
Author: Marden Dahlstedt
Major Themes: 19th century, Pennsylvania, Historical Fiction, Natural Disasters
Synopsis: When the dam bursts and hits Johnstown, will Megan and her family be able to get away from the flood in time?

“The water won’t come up to the house.” She said matter-of-factly. “It never has before.”

The Terrible Wave is about the Johnstown flood of 1889. I remember the first time I ever read the story—it was a warm day in the United States, and we had just been butchering chickens for our  family business. After that and the cleanup were done I had a little time between then and lunch to do as I wanted. This book was the next in the books I needed to read for school, so I settled down on the couch to get a chapter or so in before it was time to eat. Little did I know then how exciting and gripping the story is! In no time at all, I was “living” in Johnstown. I remember being shocked to discover that it was lunch time, and right after lunch I went back to reading. I spend a good part of the afternoon on the couch, devouring the book. And when I was done I sighed a happy little sigh and wished there was a sequel.

Megan Maxwell, the daughter of the richest man in town, cannot believe how high the water has risen with all the rainfall. Then, when she sees her father half-running to the house through the water—something a dignified man never does—she knew something had happened.

“What is it, Papa?” She was searching his face anxiously.
“I’m not sure,” he said, “but I’ve heard that the dam has broken.”

He sent her to get her aunt and brother, but after seeing how high the water was, her aunt refused to leave the house. Once up in the attic, the place her aunt deemed safe, she saw her father trying to push his way back through the chest-high water. She tried to tell him to go back, but then he suddenly stopped. Holding both his hands up in the air for a second, he then turned around and went back. When she looked to see what he had seen, she saw the terrible wave coming.

This book is chock-full of adventure, fear, and page-turning action. No matter how many times I’ve read it, I’ve never been able to put it down once I start. The story is unforgettable, and the characters are well-developed and believable. This book really captures what the flood was like. I believe children aged ten and over would especially enjoy the story, whether read aloud to them or given as a reader. If you’re looking for a read-aloud story that you’ll continually be riddled with “Keep going—you can’t stop now, Mom!”, then this is the perfect fit.

WARNING: Some parents may not like the slight romantic lean the main character has, although I did not find it over-the-top. It’s believable, and not “yucky”. There are also some words in here that, while fitting the situation perfectly, some parents may not approve of.

Age Levels:

Read Aloud—Ages 5 – 8, 8 – 12, 10 – 13
Reading Independently—Ages  8 – 12, 10 – 12, 12 – 15

Links to buy The Terrible Wave:


Paperback | Hardcover

Keywords: Johnstown Flood, Natural Disasters

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