You’d think that the heart of the story in The River Burns is the covered bridge. The cover. The marketing. And the Author’s Note which launches the novel refers to the actual Wakefield Bridge fire.
“Historical events inspired the novel’s genesis; skeletal aspects are mirrored here; yet the gentle shifts to time and place underscore that the novel is compelled by its own intentions and design, at variance with the known record in search of a veracity of its own, and is a work of fiction.”
Indeed, the bridge is at the core of a conflict amongst the town residents in the novel.
(On one hand, the loggers want it replaced to allow the industry’s trucks to cross the river expediently, and logging contributes mightily to the town’s coffers. But on the other hand, tourists flock to the bridge, their dollars to the town, and many residents have their own personal attachments to the heritage structure.)
Yet, this conflict only simmers beneath the narrative until the novel’s mid-point, when interested parties gather to air their opinions and arguments. And while the novel begins with a scene in which several characters gather around the bridge on an ordinary day, their actions illuminating their positions on the matter, and ends with a scene at the same location, the bridge seems to serve as a useful organizing principle for the novel but one which readers view from a distance.
For the heart of this novel is the community, the bridge only one component of it. And whether readers will respond to The River Burns however depends upon their response to characterization, rather than the broader historical story.
In establishing those relationships, a challenge rests in Trevor Ferguson’s style. Consider the opening sentence:
“Quite early on a splendid summer’s morning, as sunlight shimmied across the treetops or sashayed within a mischief of breezes to brighten patches of farmers’ fields and meadows below, while streams navigating the hills remained wholly shaded and residents of Wakefield stayed asleep or tottered through dawn’s failiar routines, Dennis Jasper O’Farrell caught himself having a moment.”
It’s an unusual combination of a verbose style (surely readers would intuit ‘splendid’ with the remaining descriptors, and it’s doubtful whether one need imagine both fields and meadows to reach that understanding) and a sharper tone, like that of the final phrase.
And this tendency is observed throughout the novel; The River Burns vascillates between the kind of detailed descriptions and strangely formal wordchoice seen in this passage (sometimes describing external events and sometimes a stream-of-consciousness style of immersion in characters’ thoughts) and pointed short statements (often near-mocking).
The novel is divided into three parts, which suggest that there are broader, mythic themes at work: Transgression, Reckoning, Redemption. The strained but well-meaning relationship between brothers Denny and Ryan, agitator and police officer, reminds readers that conflict develops around dinner tables as often as in boardrooms, about a parent’s affections as frequently as about political perspectives. The story seems intended to resonate at personal and humanistic levels.
The relationship between the brothers is wholly credible, the conflict consistently evident but not over-dramatized. And the novel captures a variety of male perspectives convincingly.
Indeed, despite the inclusion of two female voices (a retired teacher, Mrs. McCracken, and a newcomer, Raine Tara-Anne Cogshill), the overarching narrative voice seems to be rooted in variations of the traditional patriarchal point-of-view, rather than the more neutral stance that might have led readers to believe the story narrated by Wakefield itself.
For instance, in the pivotal scene at the evening meeting about the bridge, the new woman in town attends, and the emphasis on the residents’ immediate and dramatic interpretation of her as an object of desire (stares from the men and glares from the women) is inescapably presented through the traditional male gaze. Even Mrs. McCracken seems to adopt this perspective, openly unable to explain her attraction to this mysterious young woman, although she nurtures the relationship through a combination of shared wisdom and secrets. But, to be fair, the novel’s patriarch is as discombobulated by the newcomer as Mrs. McCracken is.
Whereas many of the characters present as cariacatures to highlight the humour of individual scenes (which would undoubtedly work well on-screen), neither of the female characters reaches beyond these borders. While Mrs. McCracken appears to possess some lingering degree of respect in light of her years as a school-teacher, much of the novel’s humour is at her expense (perhaps intended fondly, as some of her mishaps are eventually credited to a bump on the head years earlier) and she plays a less significant role in the end than readers might expect.
And whereas the newcomer claims to be “complicated”, she ultimately decides that the “two pressing aspects in her life, romance and action, were inseparable” and though she hatches a rather complicated plan, her personal decisions are remarkably conventional.
Nonetheless, many of the scenes work astonishingly well individually. (My favourite is the open conflict between the patriarch and the earnest door-to-door salesman, who is clearly unaware of the dynamics of small-town life and mistakenly believes that reporting a crime to the police will yield any more than a warning from officer-son to shotgun-wielding father.)
As the author explains at the end of the novel, The River Burns did time as a short story and then a film script before it was released into the novel form.
Reconceived as a collection of stories, it might have been rather Sunshine-Sketch-ish. On film, it might have been as charming as Richard Russo’s Empire Falls.
As a novel, connections to characters will spark and intensify only if readers can embrace the quirky, hybridized tone; The River Burns will mightily please some readers, but it will leave others struggling to bridge the gap.