Trevor Ferguson, one of Canada’s most acclaimed writers, returns with The River Burns, his long-awaited new novel.
The River Burns tells the story of a small town in crisis, the mistakes people make, and the courage it takes to heal a community after a horrific act of destruction.
Wakefield is a small town where a unique collection of longstanding citizens has lived mostly in harmony, accepting of each other’s foibles. But underneath the picture perfect exterior a battle rages between those who wish to preserve the historic single-lane covered bridge across the river, and the loggers who want it replaced with a modern alternative. As the days pass with no change in the dispute, tensions begin to boil over, friends turn against one another, and the town seethes with potential violence.
Family man and second-generation logger Denny O’Farrell has been leading the charge to modernize the bridge. When the bureaucratic route fails to produce results, Denny and his friends need a new plan of action. But local police officer Ryan O’Farrell, Denny’s brother, is very worried about exactly how much Denny and friends are willing to risk in order to win the war. Swept up into the dispute, lawyer Raine Tara-Anne Cogshill, a newcomer hiding from her big-city past, hasn’t bargained on getting caught up in a summer of violence.
The River Burns – Reading Group Guide & Author Questions
1. If you were a citizen of Wakefield, which side of the bridge debate would you support and why? Use examples from the text.
2. The River Burns is told from multiple perspectives, which character do you most identify with and why?
3. “After his wife’s passing [Alex] foresaw a choice. Permit the care and labor that she invested in her gardens over their lifetime together go to seed, and probably go to seed himself, or pick up a gardening spade and dig in. He dug in.” (pg. 30) What does this passage say about Alex O’Farrell’s personality? How would you describe Alex’s relationship to nature?
4. Both Tara Cogshill and Jake Withers are outsiders to Wakefield. How do these two people handle entering such a tight knit, albeit, conflicted community? How do each challenge the traditional roles (gender and otherwise) expected in Wakefield?
5. “Ryan O’Farrell was of two minds coming away from the house . . . He wondered if his brother possessed the same ability, to conceal what fomented inside him, to make it seem as though nothing was going on when really all hell was breaking loose.” (pg. 146) How do the characters in the novel reconcile their true selves with their roles in their community?
6. “The bridge goes to the very soul of this town.” The panel nodded to these comments, something that Denny mentioned but Tara was noticing for the first time herself, and it was Denny who chose to comment. “It’s a bridge McCracked, it’s not a religion.” (pg. 167) Despite differing opinions, in what ways is the bridge integral to the community, history, and daily life of both the loggers and the tree huggers?
7. The “us vs. them” mentality of Wakefield is strong, and prevents the loggers and the tree huggers from accepting each other’s point of view. Discuss how this attitude affects the outcome of the story.
8. Discuss the role of baseball in the community. How does it affect the interaction of individuals and groups?
9. What does the timing of Mrs. McCracken’s death signify within the narrative? How does her death affect the outcome of the story and the purpose of the characters?
10. Was Denny justified in his actions? What lessons did Denny learn? Did he redeem himself in the end?
Trevor Ferguson is the author of seven novels under his own name and another three under his pseudonym, John Farrow. One of his novels became a feature film, The Timekeeper. Four of his plays have been produced, including an off-Broadway engagement and one seen by more than 22,000 patrons in a single run. He teaches creative writing at Concordia University and lives with his wife in Hudson, Quebec.