cover image The Age of Daredevils

The Age of Daredevils

Michael Clarkson. Little A, $24.95 (344p) ISBN 978-1-5039-3542-6

In this buoyant narrative, popular history and psychology author Clarkson (The Secret Life of Glenn Gould) plunges into the turbulent chronicle of the thrill seekers who gambled their lives against the unforgiving torrent of Niagara Falls. Clarkson focuses primarily on the Hill family, whose patriarch William “Red” Hill Sr. passed his fascination with the tumultuous river on to his sons, with fatal consequences. At age 13, Hill Sr. witnessed the first successful jump of the falls in 1901 by Annie Edson Taylor, a destitute middle-aged schoolteacher, and he joined each following attempt, while eking out a living along the riverbanks as a rescuer, scavenger, bootlegger, fisher of corpses, and daredevil. Hill’s four sons took up his legacy, with his namesake, William “Red” Jr., braving the falls in 1951 in a desperate attempt to surpass his father. As a former police reporter in the area and an acquaintance of the Hills, Clarkson brings an intimate perspective to the material. His account marries intensive research with slapdash, lively prose in which storytelling is privileged over accuracy—including the reconstruction of his subjects’ thoughts and conversations. Though the various Hill sons tend to blur into one another, Clarkson convincingly manufactures the atmosphere of first half of the 20th Century, and the allure that the falls have exercised over generations of Americans, including celebrities such as Harry Houdini and Marilyn Monroe. (Oct.)