The Other Side of the Bridge, Mary Lawson
Knopf Canada, 355 pages
Mary Lawson has only written two novels to date, and they do a better job of capturing life in northern Ontario than anything else I’ve read. Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge are both set in the fictional community of Struan, Ontario, which is located somewhere near the actual town of New Liskeard. The main street of Struan features a sawmill, a post office, a few churches, and a ragtag assembly of little stores. The only restaurant serves hamburgers and milkshakes to local teenagers. There is a small, slightly dilapidated hotel for summer tourists, but it sits empty much of the time. And behind this decidedly unpolished main street lies a clear blue lake, full of fish, perfect for going out in a canoe or rowboat to forget your problems. Everyone here knows everyone else and everyone helps out when a neighbour is in crisis.
When a community is so small and everyone has known you since birth, it can seem as though your identity and life path are carved in stone. In The Other Side of the Bridge, Arthur and Jake Dunn are two very different brothers. Arthur is slow, reliable, and honest, whereas Jake is quick, impulsive, and charming. Arthur’s dependability around the farm has earned him his father’s respect, and Jake’s very existence after a string of miscarriages has won him his mother’s love. The boys each have the approval of one parent and desperately crave the good opinion of the other, which sets up a dangerous dynamic. The novel opens with Jake throwing knives near Arthur’s feet as some sort of a game; when the blade sails directly into Arthur’s foot, Arthur glances at Jake’s face and suspects malice. The knife game repeats over and over again throughout the Dunn brothers’ childhood: Jake tricks Arthur into threatening an innocent boy, Jake makes Arthur look a fool in front of their mother, Jake ensures that Arthur do all of the work. Jake plays around on a bridge instead of helping Arthur move the cattle across, and when he falls, Arthur can hardly bear the guilt. A little while later, when Jake seduces the only girl Arthur has ever loved, he leaves town and Arthur deals with the consequences.
Years go by, and Ian, the doctor’s teenage son, is looking for a part-time job that has nothing to do with medicine. His grandfather came to Struan as the town doctor, then his father filled the role, and now, even at fifteen, the people of Struan see him as the next Dr. Christopherson. Ian chooses to work at Arthur’s farm because he has a crush on Arthur’s beautiful wife, but over time, he learns to love the horses and to take pride in his work. When Jake returns to Struan to play the knife game one last time, he causes Ian to reconsider everything he ever thought about duty and freedom.
The Other Side of the Bridge tells what happens after the story is supposedly over. After the prankster falls, after the girl makes an unlikely match, there, for Lawson, is where the real story lies. That is where characters struggle with unbearable truths, learn resilience, and find their way to happiness.