Following the 9/11 attacks, The New York Times ran a series profiling the lives of as many victims as its reporters could identify. Thornton Wilder followed the same impulse when he wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1927.
Best known for the drama Our Town, Wilder seems to have thought a great deal about mortality. The graveyard scene in his play looks at life from the perspective of the dead. That preoccupation is also at the heart of his novel about a Franciscan friar who investigates the stories of five people killed in a bridge collapse.
Brother Juniper believes there must be some logic behind God’s decision to whisk away these particular individuals. His account, set in eighteenth-century Peru, studies the bitter relationship between a wealthy woman and her daughter; twin brothers whose rapport fractures when one of them falls in love with an actress; and the versatile vagabond whose mentoring makes the actress famous.
Though the victims are connected either closely or tenuously, nothing seems to justify the fate awaiting them. None is especially virtuous or sinful. If there is a common thread, it is that all were going about their business like anyone else when their lives suddenly ended. Despite the futility of Brother Juniper’s mission, an epilogue suggests that we should cherish one another while we are together, as Jesus admonished his disciples to do.
Like the dialogue in Our Town, the narration in Wilder’s novel is straightforward, fluid, and skillful; qualities that, undoubtedly, inspired the Pulitzer committee to award both works their highest honor.