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The River Burns by Trevor Ferguson

Reviewed by Alan Levine

Trevor Ferguson, of Hudson, a many-talented Quebecker who teaches creative writing at Montreal’s Concordia University, has to his added credit the better part of a dozen literary and stage and screen successes. A participant in an initiative by the Quebec Government to choose one of ten themes from Quebec history, Ferguson focused on the burning-down of the beloved century-old covered bridge in Wakefield thirty years ago.

The theme of this novel is the confrontation of environmentalists, or “tree-huggers” (and not a few dope-dealers) with the loggers and truckers who draw their wages, and their lifestyles, from deforestation of some of the most beautiful forested land in the province. The O’Farrell brothers, Ryan, the police chief, and Dennis, a trucker, who speak respectively for each group, represent two diametrically opposed positions on the bridge.

Ryan appreciates the value to the local economy of tourists who visit the village to see the bridge and enjoy its timeless beauty. Dennis’ group decries the delays in getting logging trucks across the bridge one at a time, or lingering for long periods until the same tourists are cleared from the bridge while heavily-loaded trucks are sent across one at a time. The truckers and loggers want the province to fund a replacement, a new, two-lane, state-of-the-art structure to accommodate them.

After a town-hall meeting which seems to go nowhere, Dennis and three friends burn down the bridge, and the fallout yields a most interesting tale. Several outrages follow against the forestry company. There are several smalltown subplots which might remind the reader of Leacock’s Orillia or even Metalious’ Peyton Place, perhaps even Hardy’s Casterbridge, and Ferguson captures and delineates them with ease. Of two of some half-dozen memorable characters, one is the erudite and lovable Mrs. McCracken, a long-retired but very vocal widowed schoolteacher and renowned pie-maker who communes with her cat Buckminster and her community, shoots blanks from a brace of her late beloved spouse’s antique dueling pistols to ward off pesky trespassers, but dies before the endgame. The other is a conflicted lawyer with a past, the indelibly beautiful and bright Raine Tara-Anne Cogshill, who gets into the head, and soon the bed, as it were, of Ryan O’Farrell, and is critical to the resolution of problems long-festering, which if not micromanaged might tear Wakefield apart.

Ferguson keeps us interested with consuming, tasteful lovers’ dialogue. There are some unsuspected tricky manoeuvres to outfox a couple of plainclothes provincial gumshoes involved with “major crimes” and to preserve or impact some reputations in Wakefield. Ferguson’s grasp of interpersonal relations and the stresses incurred by folks in small, tight communities is superb. Doubtless he has experienced such personality clashes in Hudson, where he lives. All told, his story-telling rarely skips a beat. Or a dead-beat. As a creative scribe, he ranks close to Attwood and Fitzgerald in his delineation of human frailty and challenge leading to what most readers treasure: a happy ending.

The River Burns is published by Simon & Schuster Canada.

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