Time Reading Program: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Bridge of San Luis Rey

Cover art by Ed Young.

I have always thought of Thornton Wilder as a playwright rather than a novelist. But not only was Wilder a novelist, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for The Bridge of San Luis Rey — which is also on the list of the American Modern Library’s top 100 novels of the (20th) century. It’s a slim thing, not even 200 pages. But Wilder’s style and his thematic interests give it a sort of mythic grandeur.

Set in the early 1700’s, the Bridge is a fable-like tale about five people who die when an old Incan rope bridge spanning a gorge breaks and they plunge to their deaths. A priest watching the scene, Father Juniper, wonders why those five people were the ones to die?

If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident or we live by plan and die by plan.

So Father Juniper resolves to learn as much as he can about the five individuals so he might discern the pattern of their shared fates. In fact, he thinks that perhaps in doing so, he can help place theology among the other sciences. So Father Juniper goes to work, and the chapters that follow are the stories of the five who died and how they came to be on the bridge that day.

Each story is unique, though they all manage to intersect in the end. Despite the book-size accumulation of information he collects and analyzes, Father Juniper can’t find a pattern or reason why certain people died when others who seemed much less worthy lived.

The discrepancy between faith and facts is greater than is generally assumed.

Still, his inquiry is deemed heresy and the Father is burned at the stake for his efforts (it is the age of the Inquisition after all). My description here makes it sound like Father Juniper is a big part of the story. He certainly provides the framework , but it is the five who die and their interconnected lives and acquaintances that make up most of the book.

I was involved in the theater in high school and one year we staged Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth. Reading Bridge, I was reminded of Wilder’s interest in sweeping themes about humanity, religion, and the general philosophy of existence. The Bridge reminded me of reading Steinbeck’s The Pearl or Orwell’s Animal Farm. You know you are in the hands of a writer who tackles the Big Themes.

One of my favorite things about reading these TRP books is to research the illustrators. After all, the covers are what started me on this crazy collection in the first place. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is illustrated by Ed Young, a prolific author and illustrator of children’s books, who has won the Caldecott for his book, Lon Po Po, Chinese version of Little Red Riding Hood. I did not find any mention of Young illustrating adult books or periodicals, etc., but looking at his children’s book illustrations, I am sure he is the same person who illustrated the TRP Bridge. The use of torn washi paper is common in his illustrations. I wish I knew more about how and why the TRP editors chose and contracted the illustrators of the series.

In this image, I love how the gorge and the sun are so huge. The natural forces of the world utterly overwhelm the small church below and the tiny trees or vegetation that look like an orchard. There are what seem to be a few wispy threads of washi across the white of the gorge. It took me a bit to realize that these fragile threads are the frayed ropes of the bridge – -but of course.

And it took me a bit longer to realize that David Mitchell was influenced by this book in Cloud Atlas. On a large scale, Cloud Atlas (and lots of his other novels) takes six disparate stories and interconnects them, similar to how the five who die end up having connections in Bridge. Mitchell even names one of his main section characters Luisa Rey–and has her drive off a bridge.

Copyright 1927 by Albert & Charles Boni, Inc.
Renewed 1955 by Thornton Wilder
Reprinted with permission of the author with Editor’s Preface and illustrations, 1963, Time Incorporated.

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