I was hesitant about this one because I’d heard there were some concerns over the way Russo handles his female characters and race, but mostly because it’s a long one–a serious investment of time when I’m feeling behind in my goals for the year. But I’m really glad I gave it a chance–this one nails upstate New York so well! And if you’re concerned about the rape in Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys, this one would be a great alternative.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. This is our last book for upstate New York, but we’re not quite done with New York City.
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo takes place in Thomaston, a fictional small city in upstate New York, which is apparently based on Gloversville, where Russo grew up. In the words of one reviewer for the New York Times:
This book often wonders how irrevocably its characters were shaped in their youth. And it questions the degree to which they can ever change.
It’s a question that comes up time and time again (and the full review is an interesting discussion of this), particularly in regards to the relationships as the young people grow up observing their parents’ struggles–and how their own echo those. And it crosses over into the themes of gender and race.
As I mentioned above, a number of reviewers on Goodreads indicated some concerns about how Russo handles these topics. My impression is that they are handled very realistically for the setting–upstate New York from the 1970s through the 1990s or so. Which means that the old black man in the story is a common trope–mystical truth-giver who helps the young boy realize truths integral to growing up–and there is racial tension surrounding a young black teen taking a white girl to a movie. And there is also a “radical” and “liberal” adult who takes a stand against racism in an extremely outspoken, uncomfortable, annoying way that doesn’t really have much effect other than to rub everyone the wrong way. And the white woman “rescues” the black girl at the end of the book, whisking her away to a new life.
The females are a mix of stereotypes as well–the tough as nails bartender, the downtrodden mouse kept pregnant all the time, the wife and mother who does it all–cooks, cleans, keeps track of the finances–for the happy-go-lucky spendthrift. But these are stereotypes for a reason, and they are women I recognize. In the small town where I grew up, black people were so rare that I would have been enthralled by an older black person in much the same way Lou was. And as I’ve become more “woke” I’ve recognized the underlying racial tensions that Russo outlines in Bridge of Sighs. Certainly the segregated–both racially and economically–neighborhoods are very familiar.
The two largest sectors are located on opposite sides of—if you can believe it—Division Street. The East End, where I spent much of my youth, is lower middle class, whereas the West End is industrial and poor. Thomaston’s few black families reside in a West End neighborhood called the Hill. None of them, according to my research, descend from the slaves who were kept at Whitcombe Hall. … The third section of Thomaston—the Borough—is located in the northeast sector, contiguous to both the East End and Whitcombe Park, and while it’s smaller than the East and West Ends in terms of both geography and population, what little wealth we have is concentrated here.
And the political realities of upstate versus downstate are accurate as well:
Though we in the Borough are outnumbered by the ethnic Catholics and registered Democrats in both the East and West Ends, our town always has a Republican mayor and is considered a write-off by downstate liberals who don’t waste much campaign money in our local television market. … As an East End boy, I wondered how a majority could be outvoted by a minority, and my father could offer no explanation except that this was the way it had always been.
Lou’s pragmatic mother gives another explanation:
The reason was fingernails. People in the Borough had clean fingernails because they never had to get them dirty, whereas West Enders got them so dirty, day after day, that they never came entirely clean, and eventually they stopped trying; East Enders like us worked hard, too, my mother claimed, but it was our nature to scrub ourselves raw with stiff brushes and coarse soap, to scrub until we bled, so our fingernails were as clean as those that never dirtied them to begin with. It was human nature, she explained. You don’t identify with people worse off than you are. You make your deals, if you can, with those who have more, because you hope one day to have more yourself. Understand that, she claimed, and you understand America, not just Thomaston.
It seems incredibly pessimistic, and yet it rings true, perhaps particularly for upstate New Yorkers of the time.
One of the other main themes of the book is the continuity of living one’s whole life in the same town where you grew up. As someone who left, it’s something I’ve often wondered about–the motivations and choices (or lack thereof) of those who stay.
Some people, upon learning how we’ve lived our lives, are unable to conceal their chagrin on our behalf, that our lives should be so limited, as if experience so geographically circumscribed could be neither rich nor satisfying. When I assure them that it has been both, their smiles suggest we’ve been blessed with self-deception by way of compensation for all we’ve missed.
There are many friends and family who have stayed in New York, some complaining constantly about the low paying jobs and the high taxes. It’s tempting to respond, “Why don’t you leave?” even though that discounts the costs associated with pulling up roots, leaving job, home, family, some semblance of security, with no guarantee that some place else will be better. There also seems to be a sense of fatalism among those who stay–“Where would we go?” or “It’s no better anyplace else.”
I’m not sure Russo really answered the question for me of why some people leave and others stay. I personally went to college and followed jobs and then my husband. The few characters in the book that we get to know who do leave are forced by circumstances to do so–which, I guess, is how I usually view those who stay. Bobby flees after a fight with his father, and Nan is whisked away to escape Bobby and the grim possibility of a life in Thomaston.
Thomaston is said to be based on Russo’s hometown of Gloversville, New York, and this article about the tanneries echoes almost verbatim some of the descriptions in Russo’s book.
The old tannery, boarded up these last forty years, which dumped its dyes and chemicals into the Cayoga Stream, which meanders through most of Thomaston before finally emptying into the Barge Canal five miles to the south. Throughout my youth the Cayoga ran different colors, according to that day’s dye batch. … Some have suggested that the owners of the old tannery, having exterminated everything in a living stream and poisoned the people along its banks, should all be behind bars, and they may be right, but it’s worth remembering that this same tannery sustained our lives for more than a century, that the very dyes that had caused the Cayoga to run red every fourth or fifth day also put bread and meat on our tables. When I was a boy, people were afraid only when the stream didn’t change color, because that meant layoffs and hard times would soon follow.
Much as in the article linked above, Russo seems to blame the many cancer cases and other maladies, as well as the polluted groundwater, on the tannery. Unfortunately the links are only circumstantial and most lawyers in the area refuse to even consider the work and cost of mounting a class action case against corporations. But this is a background thread to the book, adding to the ambiance and fatalism.
Overall Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo was a great addition to our reading challenge list for upstate New York! Russo nails the setting. If you’re looking for an exciting, action-packed thriller… this isn’t it. But as a character driven story that will introduce you to (or refamiliarize you with) the people of upstate New York, this is an excellent choice.