Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

The River Burns

by Trevor Ferguson

In 1984, arson destroyed a 69-year-old covered bridge in the small Quebec town of Wakefield. Many residents mourned the loss of this popular landmark and, in 1997, built a replica with largely volunteer labour and donated materials. Quebec author Trevor Ferguson has adapted the bridge story by adding a bitter feud between tree-huggers and tree-choppers, slipping in a steamy romance between a policeman and a mysterious new woman in town, and salting it all with a cast of oddballs similar to Wakefield’s many real-life eccentrics.

In an author’s note, Ferguson says he only borrowed the “architecture” of Wakefield and not its actual citizens. That may be true, but the author has definitely replicated the spirit of this largely Anglophone town of loggers, artists, and aging hippies. The novel even employs the ramshackle three-storey raft floated through town every Canada Day.

Ferguson’s story has a slapstick beginning, involving a young salesman trying to convince a few crotchety residents to pave their driveways. One old coot responds with a rifle, and an elderly lady threatens him with a croquet mallet. These initially comedic characters soon display their serious side. The novel takes a darker turn when four loggers burn down the town’s only bridge across the Gatineau River. The loggers believe the fire will persuade the government to build a wider, modern bridge to replace the single-lane one that is unsuitable for their big trucks.

Everyone in Ferguson’s Wakefield knows who torched the bridge. But will the foursome be charged and convicted? Ferguson keeps you guessing almost to the very end of his fast-paced tale. The conclusion, though awfully contrived, suits the tone of the book, which should be taken no more seriously than an episode of Corner Gas. It’s mostly good, clean fun – a well-crafted portrait of a small town, its eccentric inhabitants, and the rebirth of a bridge.