Review: The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson


At the dawn of the twentieth century, a small but determined band of barrel jumpers risked their lives in one of the world’s most wondrous waterfalls. Only a few survived.

By turns a family drama and an action-adventure story, The Age of Daredevils chronicles the lives of the men and women who devoted themselves to the extraordinary sport of jumping over Niagara Falls in a barrel—a death-defying gamble that proved a powerful temptation to a hardy few.

Internationally known in the 1920s and ’30s for their barrel-jumping exploits, the Hills were a father-son team of daredevils who also rescued dozens of misguided thrill seekers and accident victims who followed them into the river. The publicity surrounding the Hills’ spectacular feats ushered in tourism, making Niagara Falls the nation’s foremost honeymoon destination, but ultimately set Red Hill Jr. on a perilous path to surpass his father’s extraordinary leaps into the void.

Like the works of Jon Krakauer and David McCullough, The Age of Daredevils explores the primal force of fear and the thirst for adventure that drive humans to the brink of death to see if they can somehow escape.

The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson.  Narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner.  Published by Brilliance Audio, October 2016.  9 hours and 42 mins.  Read for Non-fiction November 2018.

What would posses a person to become a daredevil?  To challenge nature with incredibly risky stunts that could leave you broken and battered, or worse, dead.  I’ve never understood why someone would risk so much over something so dangerous.  The Age of Daredevils clears up some of the confusion as it takes us on a barrel ride through the history of people wanting to go over Niagara Falls.

At first glance, I thought this book was going to be about the over all coverage of the daredevil stunts at the falls through the decades.  While The Age of Daredevils does talk a lot about the history of the barrel stunts performed there, the  main focus is on the Hill family through multiple generations (1901 -1970) as they try to make a living on the falls.  The history you learn about the other daredevils is not nearly as in depth as what you learn about the Hill family.  You mostly learn about the others through their interactions with Red Hill and his large family.  The very last chapter in the book covers a more modern era stunt attempts at Niagara, but it was an extremely short chapter and not really any deep discussions about anyone.  They were mostly just mentioned as in “Hey, this person did this in 1995.” and that was about it.  I wished the audio came with a PDF of pictures to look at.  It would have been nice to see what these people looked like without having to go to google.  I’ve heard that the printed edition has a section in the back that talks about Youtube links to see some of the stunts that were filmed, but I don’t know if that is true or not because there was nothing like that included with the audio.  That would have also been nice to have in a downloadable PDF.

I didn’t really know anything about the history of Niagara falls or of all the stunts and mishaps that occurred there.  There are a lot of suicides and accidents (and “accidental” deaths).  So many, in fact, that one of Red Hill’s jobs was to fish out “floaters” from the water.  Yuck.  Doing stunts and finding bodies weren’t the only thing the Hills were good at.  They also had several successful rescues of people and animals that had accidentally fallen in to the water.  The water was so rough and wild.  Over the waterfall, the drop was 177 ft.  My jaw just hung open thinking about the fact that people willingly wanted to go over Niagara falls.  A lot of people have died there.  So many unsuccessful rides over the waterfall.  Why did people become obsessed with it?  Some wanted money and fame they were sure they would get from the stunt.  Some wanted to do it to show they were better then the other people who had attempted the same stunt, do it fast or better. Some people just wanted to prove to themselves that they could accomplish something daring.  Red Hill did it because he loved Niagara Falls. 

Red Hill sounded like a pretty amazing man.  Courageous and kind.  While I don’t normally go for the family drama stories, I’ve got to admit that the Hill family was pretty interesting.  The things they did, truly amazing rescues and stunts.  Some of it was pretty sad though.  They made almost no money from all the hard work they did at the falls.  Red suffered most of his life from pretty terrible injuries he received from WWI.  Red and his son, Major, suffered from PTSD from the wars they were in, and in a time where the only help you’d get from that is to drink yourself to death.  There were plenty of family tragedies throughout the book.  The Age of Daredevils gives you a great slice of life for the early 1900s and it was pretty neat how it was written in a very old timey way… like the phrases and words used fit that early era perfectly.  If I hadn’t known it was a book that came out just a few years ago, I would have thought it was much, much older. 😮

The narrator was Malcolm Hillgartner.  He also had an old timey feel to him.  A grandiose showman sort of voice, if you know what I mean.  Come one, come all! See the amazing sights and death defying daredevils!   Mr. Hillgartner was a perfect fit for this book.  I really think you needed that sort of feel to do the narration justice.

The Age of Daredevils was a fascinating look at the early 1900s and the barrel stunts performed at Niagara Falls at that time, as well learning about the great Hill family.  The stunts are wild and the story is very entertaining, with some spots of sadness sprinkled throughout.  The narrator made the audio version fun, but I missed having the pictures from the printed edition to look at.



2 thoughts on “Review: The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

  1. I’d love to read this! I watched a documentary about this and it was fascinating. Gotta ask, what is that cute creature on the book shelf at the top of your blog?

  2. The little statue to the right? That is a mini statue I picked up in the early 2000s at a comic convention I went to. It is based on author / artist Michel Gange’s book Insanely Twisted Rabbits. A statue company named Sideshow Collectibles created a limited edition run of 6 different rabbit mini-statues, each only had 500 made of them (which is pretty low for a statue). The one on my shelf is called Scorpion Tail Rabbit. I love scorpions, and I love rabbits… so it was love at first sight. For a long time he has sat on the counter in my kitchen, but earlier this year when I decided to put all my animal and creature feature books on one bookcase I thought he would be a perfect fit for the shelves there. 😀 You can see what the other ones looked like here:

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