How books can make things better

bridge.jpgLet’s be honest. America is quickly becoming a shithole country. The steady drone of stupidity coming from Washington, D.C. is deafening. And it’s February in Michigan with all the dreary gray that comes with it. And, of course, there’s what happened yesterday in Florida.

But today’s book was read before a teenaged gunman killed 17 people as they sat in class. It’s interesting, as people across the country ask why, how relevant Thornton Wilder’s 1926 classic “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” still is.

To let you know what it’s about, I quote the opening line of the book: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” No one who crossed the bridge, and many did every day, ever thought the bridge could break, so it was something of note when it happened, people recalled the last time they crossed, or imagined themselves falling to their deaths. But Brother Juniper, who witnessed the accident, was moved to ask why those five people? “Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and pie by plan. And on that instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons.”

Wilder then tells the stories of the five victims of this act of God: A bitter, lonely woman of an ungrateful daughter whose letters on love become required reading in schools for centuries and her convent-raised orphan maid Pepita; Esteban, a man distraught over his twin’s death; Uncle Pio, a man devoted to theater and in particular to an actress called The Perichole; and the Perichole’s young son. These lives are engrossing and go in ways a reader can’t predict. Keep an eye on the characters who are part of the lives of several of the five.  It’s heartbreaking that all five of them had recently made a decision that would change their lives forever, only to have their futures taken from them seemingly at the whim of God. It’s also interesting that the five who died have very strong connections with the written word. I’m not sure what to make of this, but it’s there.

I read this book many years ago and I must not have been ready for it, because I found it interesting, but not particularly intriguing. But reading it last month was almost a religious experience. It’s a religious book, yes, but the beauty of Wilder’s writing is evident on every page.

For instance, the introduction ends with this: “Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not be brushed away by the finger of God.”

And this: “Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.”

And this, at the end, is perhaps the most often-quoted line in the book: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

I could go on, but it’s a short book, and I don’t want to mar its beauty here.

Wilder does not answer all the questions this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel asks, and that’s fine. What’s important is asking the questions and loving other people whether they love us back or not.

This is a beautiful book to turn to in ugly times. Read it.


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