Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Five Things Literary: Wakefield, Quebec with Trevor Ferguson

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Trevor Ferguson

Trevor Ferguson's seventh and latest novel, The River Burns (Simon & Schuster Canada), takes readers to the small town of Wakefield, where a battle between tradition and progress roils under an idyllic surface.

Trevor, whose work has been praised around the world and by the likes of Dennis Lee and Leon Rooke, and joins us today as part of our Five Things Literary series. In this edition, Trevor takes us into the real town of Wakefield, on the Gatineau River in Quebec.

Read on to hear about the literary, artistic and daily life of Wakefield, where Trevor tells us about the bridge that inspired The River Burns, the Prime Minister who "resides" in Wakefield and how a cave is like a book.

Five Things Literary: Wakefield

Wakefield, in western Quebec, nestles amid rolling hills north of Ottawa along the banks of the Gatineau River. An English speck on a French map, brochures may advise that the town is notable for the charm of its architecture, its picturesque setting, or suggest that, here, life emulates a gently flowing river. Yet visitors who disembark from the train pulled by a steam locomotive discover a community of contradictions — and writers and readers enter the cracks corroded by contradiction. Here’s a village that is home to artists and loggers both, to French and English, and to those who value commerce foremost and to those who favour a laidback lifestyle. Summer cottagers rub up against year-round residents and working people reside amid the wealthy. Such juxtapositions foster drama.

  1. The Wakefield Covered Bridge
    • This is not the original Wakefield Covered Bridge. The first fell victim to arson. The Gatineau was the last river in Quebec to banish the great log drives, once a crucial aspect of the region’s livelihood. The end of the log booms meant the onset of transporting timber by truck, the old bridge too frail for the purpose and a bottleneck. Someone set it ablaze. Burning, the bridge broke from its moorings and carried on down the stream as a floating inferno. A spectacular, albeit tragic, sight. Yet an older woman promptly inspired townspeople to rebuild a new bridge in the old style, and while a modern bridge upstream accommodates traffic today, the reproduction of the old one soothes the spirit of those on foot or bicycle. A ruddy red beauty, the bridge stands above the rapids as a testament to community spirit harnessed to a noble cause. Folks from every occupation came together to construct the covered bridge, and that weathering of treachery followed by sacrifice and generosity remains imbued in the bridge timbers — inspiring my novel The River Burns.


  2. The Cemetery
    • Any writer loves a cemetery. They echo stories, of wrecks, of plagues, of fortitude and prosperity, of sudden tragedy. Family histories are traced and old gravestones provoke the imagination into envisioning and reinventing a former world. High on a hill, the MacLaren Cemetery is accessible by road, but finds itself also on a network of hiking trails that offer stunning views and contemplative walks amid the trees. A former prime minister and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace lies buried there. Lester Pearson chose to have his remains sleep through eternity on this windswept patch for the view across the Gatineau hills, for that daily vision of tranquillity.


  3. Le Mouton Noir
    • Artisans abound in Wakefield. Craftspeople and visual artists have made the town a Mecca, of sorts. Musicians arrive for Le Mouton Noir, the Black Sheep. Top-flight talent has emerged from this humble — one might say, black sheepish — pub, and top-flight talent makes a point of beating a path to the venue, performing but also recording there. Great music is inspirational, and in such a funky locale it can be, at the best of times, transcendent.


  4. The Caves
    • Given that I’m claustrophobic, caves do not constitute my natural habitat. Still, I brave them, until the enclosure becomes too tight for my limits. Entering a cave for me is always reminiscent of browsing through the mind. There’s darkness and the allusion of secrets, there’s mystery and surprise amid the fear. In caves, we confront ourselves. A covert winding trail through rock might collapse at any moment (we fear), yet finding our way through is evocative of both adventure and sudden discovery. In a way, a cave is like a spellbinding book, one in which we crave a light at the end of its intricate, and seemingly darkening, tunnels.


  5. The Steam Train
    • Who doesn’t love a train? Picture this: a fall day, a lazily flowing river amid pastel hills; along the riverbank on narrow gauge track a steam locomotive chugs along at a millipede’s pace under a plume of white smoke. Mahogany-trimmed club cars follow dutifully behind. The vision is indicative of another time, yet real enough, with the soot from the engine and a bite in the fall air. We return to an elusive time that is adrift from, yet a harbinger of, our own. As a token to that era, passengers assist in revolving the locomotive on a wooden wheel in the centre of Wakefield before its return journey. It’s beneficial, certainly, for the writer’s mind to turn the wheel, to conjure another era when aids from the past have devised the ways and means to be present.

Trevor Ferguson has been highly praised for his stunning and dramatic writing, and his ability to explore the mysteries of the human heart. With The River Burns, he takes the reader on a passionate journey through the humanity, temptation, devastation, and, ultimately, the redemption of a small town.

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