Book of the Month: The Bridges of Madison County

Reading Owl

Let’s start the very first Book of the Month for 2013 with a question for the forum:

Can you name a book or literary piece that features a bridge (or bridges) serving as a centerpiece to an even bigger story?

Speaking from a literary critic’s point of view, one of the most successful stories that feature bridges as a centerpiece is the book “The Bridges of Madison County,” by Robert James Waller. Published in 1992, the book was turned into a film three years later and became a smash hit. The Chronicles will summarize both works to compare the plot and sturcture for reasons to be mentioned below.

I was first introduced to the book while living in Germany as an exchange student 13 years ago, but in the German version. It was the first book I read in a language other than English and regardless of which language the book has been translated (it was translated into 50 languages), the book serves as a starting block and should be considered for reading material either in the classroom or in one’s leisure time.

The setting of the book is in Madison County Iowa, where Robert Kincaid, a photographer for the National Geographic, was looking for covered bridges, when he meets Francesca Johnson, a farmer’s wife whose husband and two children left for four days to exhibit their prized stier at the Illinois State Fair, while inquiring about the Roseman Bridge. She leads him to the bridge but after some photo sessions, she invites him to dinner. Robert returns the favor the next day by inviting her to a photo session of the Holliwell Bridge and they eventually opened the door to three days of romance and rediscovery of onesself, the sides of themselves that revealed their true identities in contrast to the ones they were accustomed to. Yet the last day of solitude brought a decision that would change their lives forever- whether Francesca should leave the farm in favor of Robert or if Robert should leave Francesca because of her devotion and love to her farm and family- the climatic conclusion in the story! While Francesca decided to stay put, despite the warning Robert gives him that “…the decision comes but just once in a lifetime,” as stated by Kincaid in the film (played by Clint Eastwood), the book led to discussions among literary critics, sociologists other people alike with the arguments going along the line I’m about to state: Francesca was in the middle of one of the covered bridges, with one side representing her farm, family and the way of life that she was used to, and the other side representing Robert, individualism and the way of life that she could have been. Either decision made would be hedonistic for one side will be hurt effectively, leaving scars, while the other may benefit but she would still suffer from the decision. The only way she could not do is jump from the bridge, for it would lead to questions that both sides would not be able to answer.

The kids, Michael and Caroline do not know about the affair until they went through the papers and other records after Francesca dies. This is where the story stops in the book, which in literary terms has an open plot until the very end, but is extended in the film, which features a closed plot, looking back into the past.  In the film, the setting begins with Francesca dying and the children meeting at the farmstead. Both characters (Caroline played by Annie Corley and Michael played by Victor Slezak) have problems with their relationships with their spouses- the former is being cheated on; the latter is incompatible with his wife, Betty- which are exposed as they find the journals written by their mother about the relationship with Robert Kincaid. As they read the journals, they were taken to the past where it all happened as Francesca (played by Meryl Streep) unfolds the story in detail, going from a farmer’s hand on a small farm to one on an adventure with Robert.

While the climax between Robert and Frnacesca was kept in the book, the climax of their portion of the story comes at a park in the middle of the night where each one vents their frustration out about their spouses over a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey, and how the morals taught to them by their parents were put into question by Francesca’s affair with Robert.  In the end, as Francesca made her sacrifice in favor of her husband, both Caroline and Michael made decisions to make themselves and their spouses happy, although it was unclear how their relationships would have ended- either redo the relationship with the same person or redo the whole relationship with someone else. The best quote came from Michael, who told his wife Betty (after worrying about him not contacting her) “Do I make you happy, because I want to, all the better.”

The film serves as a compliment to the book and has extended the discussion about happiness among all people associated with the book. While many films, based on literary pieces, either copied the work exactly as it was written, as seen in the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald or dilluted it to alter the meaning stated in the book, as happened in the book The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCollough, which was converted into a two-film series to the dismay of the author and the audience, the Bridges of Madison County was carefully crafted so that not only the story was kept the same but was extended in a way that it kept to the plot, even though the book featured an open plot (where many items were open, waiting to be closed) and a closed plot (where everything is closed and finished and it was just a matter of flashing back to the past). The setting was the same and takes a person back to the 1960s, where rural life was peaceful and moral, families were being established after being off to war (and this was mentioned in many scenes in the story), and rock music was in its infancy, taking over jazz music bit by bit. 57 Chevies ruled the Iowa landscape, even though No Passing Zone signs were not on the roadways just yet. And stories of the past were revealed so that all the characters can take them with, think about what they can do better in life, and share them with their children.

From an educator’s point of view, the Bridges of Madison County belongs to a certain canon dealing with post modern fiction in the period of social crossroads in the 1950s through the 1970s, where American culture suffers its own version of the Big Bang Theory, where tradition and modernism meet and coincide, romance and moral values have new meaning, and where new bridges were built between these two. It definitely will lead to discussion that will leave the classroom and out onto the street.  From a historian’s point of view, the Bridges of Madison County has left a mark in the county’s history, which will be seen by many people who visit the region, not just in the forms of the remaining covered bridges that exist, but also the places where the film was shot, and where Waller wrote his piece. The book is a must for those who either has an interest in literature, culture and history or one who has an interest in reading. And if you are learning a foreign language, this book should be one you should read for it is easy to understand and it leads to discussions that can be conducted in a language other than the original English.

Author’s note: I would love to hear from you about this book or any literature that deals with bridges and its plot that people should read, based on the question I asked in the article. Please leave your answers and thoughts either here or in the facebook pages The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles.





Mystery Bridge 19: The Holliwell Truss Bridge

Photo taken in December 2007
Holliwell Covered Bridge (as reference)
Built in 1880
























Author’s note: This is a follow-up on yesterday’s article about the Bridges of Madison County, Iowa. For more information, please click here.

There are many features that make visiting the Holliwell Bridge, located over the Middle River on the road bearing its name, worth visiting. One has the historic features, as mentioned in the article on the bridges of Madison County, being a covered bridge built in a unique fashion that one will rarely see by a local bridge builder who left a mark in the county. It is located in the wooded valley, making it a grand location for fishing and picnicking. And as a bonus, located to the east of the historic covered bridge is yet another historic structure.
Comprising of a pin-connected Pratt pony truss bridge, this structure was relocated to the site from an unknown location many years ago, and nobody knows where it originated from and how it got there. It is clear that when it was relocated to its present site, it was erected on a concrete floor and remained there as a marker with no name and no history. Judging by the way the bridge was assembled that it was built in the 1880s or 1890s, long before truss bridges were standardized to feature riveted connections.

Madison County had built hundreds of truss bridges in addition to the covered bridges that makes it the most populous and famous in the state of Iowa, still to this day. Half of the truss bridges that were constructed between the 1880s and the 1940s were pony truss bridges.

However, there may be a lead to this bridge that is in connection with the film “The Bridges of Madison County,” starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Street, based on the book by Robert J. Waller.  In the scene where Robert Kincaid (the photographer played by Eastwood) meets Francesca Johnson (the housewife played by Streep) for the first time, they both took a trip to the Roseman Bridge. On the way there, they crossed a pony truss bridge resembling the similarities of the one located at Holliwell Bridge.  While it may be a bit naive to assume this because many pony truss bridges like the one at the site have been decimated due to a lack of information on their history and significance to the communities they served, it is possible that the pony truss used in the film was saved from destruction and was relocated to the present site. A clip of the scene in the 11th minute will show you how Kincaid and Johnson crossed the bridge enroute to the bridge, and eventually into four days of life-altering romance that lasted a lifetime. Yet comparing that scene with the photo, it may be that the one in the clip is a bit shorter than the picture.

One can make many assumptions as to how the truss bridge at the Holliwell Covered Bridge site managed to be preserved in a way that it is giving Madison County a pristine reputation towards preserving historic bridges, or one can find out more about how the bridge’s history and replace the theories with facts and stories about it. If you know more about this bridge that will help solve this intriguing mystery, please leave your comments at the end of the article or contact the author at the Chronicles at  The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles helps solve mysteries of historic bridges like this one in order to preserve them for future generations to come.

The Hunt for the Truth about Historic Bridges 1: The Bridges of Madison County, Iowa

Roseman Bridge. This and the following photos were taken by the author and his wife Birgit while touring Madison County in December 2007

This is the first of many series to come in the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles as we focus on finding the truth behind the historic bridges that we know about but have some questions to answer and missing gaps to fill. Some of them are in connection with the book project the author is doing on Iowa’s historic truss bridges (please click here for more details), but others are in connection with inquiries made by other readers for their own purpose. If you have an inquiry about a historic bridge that you would like to see solved, please contact Jason Smith at the Chronicles at and it will be posted.

This is the first of many to come.

When the words covered bridges and Iowa come to mind, the first place a person would mention is Madison County. Located southwest of the capital of Des Moines and its county seat being Winterset, Madison County is one of the most attractive places to go when visiting Iowa. It is the birthplace of western actor John Wayne. It also was the scene of the romantic film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep based on the book written by Robert James Waller bearing the same name as the theme of this article, winning a rainbow’s worth of awards both as a film as well as the literary work. (Note: The book was written in 1992).

Yet the county also has a wide array of covered bridges, still after all these years. Counting the Roseman Bridge, six covered bridges, all built between 1870 and 1884, still populate the county, four of which were built by local contractor, Benton Jones. Another covered bridge, the McBridge covered bridge, built in 1871, was destroyed by arson in 1983 and was subsequentially replaced afterwards with a concrete slab bridge.  All of the bridges, including the McBride remains have been marked with signs and placed on tour guides that one can pick up at the tourist information office in Winterset. They include the following bridges:

Cutler-Donahoe Bridge at the park on the south end of Winterset
Built in 1871; relocated to its present site in 1970


Cedar Bridge
Built in 1883; destroyed by arson in 2002; rebuilt in 2004 and open to traffic
Hogback Bridge
Built in 1884; bypassed and rehabilitated in 1992
Holliwell Bridge
Built in 1880
Imes Bridge at local park in St. Charles
Built in 1870; located twice (1887 and to its final destination in 1970)

And lastly, the photo at the beginning of the article is the Roseman Bridge, built in 1883.

The Hunt for the Truth is: These were not the only bridges of its kind that were built in Madison County. While at a café in Winterset, a waitress provided my wife and me with a placemat with a map of all the historic bridges that had existed before they were replaced by steel truss bridges and later concrete bridges. The number is more than three times the number of bridges that exist in the county. Therefore, the questions for the forum are the following:

1. How many covered bridges were built in Madison County and

2. Where were these bridges located and what were the local names for each of them?

Anyone willing to share some information are asked to contact Jason Smith at the Chronicles. The information will be useful not only to solve the case, but also for the book on Iowa’s truss bridges, under the section of wooden truss and covered bridges. However, many people who have interest and background information on historic bridges, Iowa history and Madison County would also like to know how many covered bridges were built and how they were named. Furthermore, the author would like to know if there were other contractors that built covered bridges in Madison County or if Benton Jones was the lone contractor. Any help would be much appreciated.

To end the first hunting expedition, the author would like to share a note about the McBride Bridge. The bridge was destroyed by an arsonist who was upset about his wife leaving him. He and his wife met and carved their names at the bridge and the break-up was too much for him. He turned himself in, was convicted for arson and was sentenced to community service, consisting of working with other people in restoring historic bridges, a punishment that turned into a treat for him, as his love for historic bridges grew, and he worked well past the end of his sentencing in preserving historic bridges. What a way to convert him into a pontist and a selfless person. Any help on who this gentleman was would be much appreciated.