The book by Robert James Waller and the movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Steep has turned the sleepy Iowa town of Winterset, Iowa into a year-round attraction.
Even before the book was written, the town prided itself on being the birthplace and home of John Wayne. An entire block is now devoted to his memory and one of the main streets has been renamed John Wayne Boulevard.
People come to see the bridges, but they are really interested in the fictional romance dreamed up by Waller and played exquisitely by Eastwood and Streep. The same women that would condemn their neighbor’s infidelity and shoot their husbands for staring at a young woman come in droves to worship at the spot where Francesca and the cuckolding Robert Kincaid fell into a romantic swoon and gave an added meaning to their lonely lives by finding love on a hot summer day.
Francesca is a woman who holds strong to the country values of keeping her family together. She meets the masculine, free-spirited Kincaid. He is a photographer for National Geographic whose assignment is to photograph the covered bridges. Unable to locate these bridges, he stops at the farm where Francesca lives. Her husband and two children were away at the state fair for a week. After guiding Kincaid to a nearby bridge, she invites him in for ice tea. Within a day, they shed their clothes and inhibitions to commence a four-day romance that the two will never forget. It all feels so natural and so right as they talk of things that Madison County people never talk about. Reality melts in the summer heat and their instant infatuation blooms into a deep love as fast as the quick brown fox can jump over the slow lazy dog.
It is understandable that Kincaid had trouble finding the bridges. They are located miles apart and all over the county––down winding gravel roads that leave a white coat of limey dust over all surfaces. Madison County is still a pictorial vision of the 1960s yet today. The rolling hills, the gravel country roads, the semi-pristine hardwood forests salute the past, as do the well-kept farms still owned by individual farmers.
The story of their romance had a bittersweet ending. After four days, Francesca decides that she will end the affair and stay with her husband and family. It is raining as she drives away with her husband in the pickup. When they pull up behind Kincaid’s truck, it is all she can do not to bolt from the truck and run off to a new life of unimagined adventures. After some years, Kincaid dies and sends his ashes and prized possessions back to Francesca, who keeps them hidden from everyone. They are not found by the family until Francesca herself passes on. The two children, now adults, are made aware of the passionate affair and have to deal with it in their own way.
The people who visit these bridges leave their marks behind them. They too search for romance. Lonely teens call out publicly for sex. Couples leave their calling cards on the timbers and the painted boards at the bridge entries.
The bridges have been maintained and rebuilt in the 1990s. The rustic work of long-dead carpenters can still be admired and written on by passers-by through the age. The bridges of Madison County still stand as a testimony to the artful lives of rural America in the 19th century. The story of the romance between Francesca and Kincaid also represents a change in American values. These tourists who come to visit do not condemn them. There is no scarlet letter “A” written on Francesca’s memory, Though ￼the story is fiction, the romance is as real in the minds of the visitors as the bridges that ￼brought them together. People do understand and relate to one another. Compassion has not died out completely. People still believe in the power of love to transform.