I was tired, and honestly, I thought I would just fall asleep while listening to this story. I was okay with that.
I was mostly listening so that I report back to my Canadian friend who told me about The Vinyl Cafe - I’d never heard of it and my expectations were low. Ready to check one more thing off my list, I put on my headphones and got in bed.
But by the time I finished listening to "Roger Woodward and Niagara Falls", I realized that I had been drawn out of my sleepiness and into the story - I was wide awake.
The Vinyl Cafe is broadcast on CBC radio in Canada and on various public radio stations throughout the United States, and they are heard by an audience of about 1 million people each weekend. Their website lists “Roger Woodward and the Niagara Falls” as one of their “favourite moments,” and with good reason. This story has a lot going for it (including Stuart McLean’s confident, preacher-like voice... it’s just really nice to listen to), but I want to focus on one thing in particular: McLean uses details to awaken your senses and bring you into the story.
We go into the story already knowing the ending—we know the small boat Woodward is on is going to capsize, we already know Woodward is going to be pulled over the powerful Niagara Falls, and we already know the boy will miraculously make it out alive. Even with all the major plot points of the story laid bare before the telling has even begun, McLean still spins a suspenseful tale. We know what is going to happen, but he makes us question how it is going to happen.
McLean knows that the trick to creating suspense is to layer a story with details. As McLean recounts the day Woodward went over the Niagara Falls, he weaves small, seemingly overlooked details into the narrative. McLean takes care to describe Woodward’s life jacket—awkwardly strapped to him and several sizes too big—as well as the shoal the boat hits—it juts out before the falls and is white, covered in seagulls. Details ground the listener in the story, making the moments feel present-tense even though they have already passed.
One of the most beautiful parts of the piece is when McLean describes the moments before Woodward falls over the Niagara. It is here that Woodward “realizes that he is going to die.” McLean asks him what thoughts were going through his mind after that realization. Seven-year-old Woodward was not thinking about “heaven or hell,” but instead, wondered what his parents would do with his toys after he died. That tiny detail tells us so much about the boy who is about to go over the falls. It reminds that he is young and concerned with the simple things that make up a child’s life, and it reveals his inability to comprehend what is about to happen. McLean knows the importance of moments like these and uses them effectively in his prose.
You know what happens next—but I won’t give away the rest of the great details McLean embeds into the story here. You’ll have to listen to the Vinyl Café yourself to hear that.
“Roger Woodward and Niagara Falls”
told by Stuart McLean of CBC’s Vinyl Café in 2010