Book of the Month: The Bridges of Madison County

The reading owl suggests…….

Let’s start the very first Book of the Month for 2013 with a question for the forum:

Can you name a book or literary piece that features a bridge (or bridges) serving as a centerpiece to an even bigger story?

Speaking from a literary critic’s point of view, one of the most successful stories that feature bridges as a centerpiece is the book “The Bridges of Madison County,” by Robert James Waller. Published in 1992, the book was turned into a film three years later and became a smash hit. The Chronicles will summarize both works to compare the plot and sturcture for reasons to be mentioned below.

I was first introduced to the book while living in Germany as an exchange student 13 years ago, but in the German version. It was the first book I read in a language other than English and regardless of which language the book has been translated (it was translated into 50 languages), the book serves as a starting block and should be considered for reading material either in the classroom or in one’s leisure time

The setting of the book is in Madison County Iowa, where Robert Kincaid, a photographer for the National Geographic, was looking for covered bridges, when he meets Francesca Johnson, a farmer’s wife whose husband and two children left for four days to exhibit their prized stier at the Illinois State Fair, while inquiring about the Roseman Bridge. She leads him to the bridge but after some photo sessions, she invites him to dinner. Robert returns the favor the next day by inviting her to a photo session of the Holliwell Bridge and they eventually opened the door to three days of romance and rediscovery of onesself, the sides of themselves that revealed their true identities in contrast to the ones they were accustomed to. Yet the last day of solitude brought a decision that would change their lives forever- whether Francesca should leave the farm in favor of Robert or if Robert should leave Francesca because of her devotion and love to her farm and family- the climatic conclusion in the story! While Francesca decided to stay put, despite the warning Robert gives him that “…the decision comes but just once in a lifetime,” as stated by Kincaid in the film (played by Clint Eastwood), the book led to discussions among literary critics, sociologists other people alike with the arguments going along the line I’m about to state: Francesca was in the middle of one of the covered bridges, with one side representing her farm, family and the way of life that she was used to, and the other side representing Robert, individualism and the way of life that she could have been. Either decision made would be hedonistic for one side will be hurt effectively, leaving scars, while the other may benefit but she would still suffer from the decision. The only way she could not do is jump from the bridge, for it would lead to questions that both sides would not be able to answer.

The kids, Michael and Caroline do not know about the affair until they went through the papers and other records after Francesca dies. This is where the story stops in the book, which in literary terms has an open plot until the very end, but is extended in the film, which features a closed plot, looking back into the past.  In the film, the setting begins with Francesca dying and the children meeting at the farmstead. Both characters (Caroline played by Annie Corley and Michael played by Victor Slezak) have problems with their relationships with their spouses- the former is being cheated on; the latter is incompatible with his wife, Betty- which are exposed as they find the journals written by their mother about the relationship with Robert Kincaid. As they read the journals, they were taken to the past where it all happened as Francesca (played by Meryl Streep) unfolds the story in detail, going from a farmer’s hand on a small farm to one on an adventure with Robert.

While the climax between Robert and Frnacesca was kept in the book, the climax of their portion of the story comes at a park in the middle of the night where each one vents their frustration out about their spouses over a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey, and how the morals taught to them by their parents were put into question by Francesca’s affair with Robert.  In the end, as Francesca made her sacrifice in favor of her husband, both Caroline and Michael made decisions to make themselves and their spouses happy, although it was unclear how their relationships would have ended- either redo the relationship with the same person or redo the whole relationship with someone else. The best quote came from Michael, who told his wife Betty (after worrying about him not contacting her) “Do I make you happy, because I want to, all the better.”

The film serves as a compliment to the book and has extended the discussion about happiness among all people associated with the book. While many films, based on literary pieces, either copied the work exactly as it was written, as seen in the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald or dilluted it to alter the meaning stated in the book, as happened in the book The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCollough, which was converted into a two-film series to the dismay of the author and the audience, the Bridges of Madison County was carefully crafted so that not only the story was kept the same but was extended in a way that it kept to the plot, even though the book featured an open plot (where many items were open, waiting to be closed) and a closed plot (where everything is closed and finished and it was just a matter of flashing back to the past). The setting was the same and takes a person back to the 1960s, where rural life was peaceful and moral, families were being established after being off to war (and this was mentioned in many scenes in the story), and rock music was in its infancy, taking over jazz music bit by bit. 57 Chevies ruled the Iowa landscape, even though No Passing Zone signs were not on the roadways just yet. And stories of the past were revealed so that all the characters can take them with, think about what they can do better in life, and share them with their children.

From an educator’s point of view, the Bridges of Madison County belongs to a certain canon dealing with post modern fiction in the period of social crossroads in the 1950s through the 1970s, where American culture suffers its own version of the Big Bang Theory, where tradition and modernism meet and coincide, romance and moral values have new meaning, and where new bridges were built between these two. It definitely will lead to discussion that will leave the classroom and out onto the street.  From a historian’s point of view, the Bridges of Madison County has left a mark in the county’s history, which will be seen by many people who visit the region, not just in the forms of the remaining covered bridges that exist, but also the places where the film was shot, and where Waller wrote his piece. The book is a must for those who either has an interest in literature, culture and history or one who has an interest in reading. And if you are learning a foreign language, this book should be one you should read for it is easy to understand and it leads to discussions that can be conducted in a language other than the original English.

Roseman Bridge. This and the following photos were taken by the author and his wife Birgit while touring Madison County in December 2007

 

Author’s note: I would love to hear from you about this book or any literature that deals with bridges and its plot that people should read, based on the question I asked in the article. Please leave your answers and thoughts either here or in the facebook pages The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles.

 

 

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