Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. New York, NY: HaperCollins Children’s Books. 2003. 176 pages.
If there was one thing I loved about school, it was the Scholastic Book Club. I’m not exaggerating when I say getting the Scholastic catalog and placing an order was a highlight of my childhood. I didn’t walk 10 miles through blizzards and hungry packs of wolves to school like the previous generation half-jokingly claimed, but unlike many of today’s children I didn’t have much stuff. We had neither money nor room for “junk,” as my dad would say.
When I was allowed to buy a Scholastic book, it was a treat to be savored. I had to choose carefully. Some of my favorite titles: The Snow Ghosts. Mystery by Moonlight. The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost. The Mystery in the Pirate Oak. The Mystery of the Great Swamp. The Girl Who Ran Away. The Magic Tunnel. The Arrow Book of Ghost Stories. I remembered a few others by their covers, although I can’t swear I read them: The Ghost Rock Mystery. Deadline at Spook Cabin. The Stolen Train.
I liked mysteries and stories with a hint of the otherworldly. Some ended prosaically—as with Scooby Doo adventures, the ghost turned out to be the equivalent of the creepy lighthouse keeper. Others—the ones I liked best—ventured into the child’s version of the Twilight Zone: The Snow Ghosts. The Magic Tunnel. A non-Scholastic book in this category merits mention: The Secret Pencil by Patricia Ward, which tops my list of children’s books.
Some of these stories have a common theme—a child who feels like a misfit in his or environment or circumstances. The only girl in a family dominated by rowdy boys. The loner. The city boy who doesn’t know to wear rubber-soled shoes because he’s never learned how to play. The girl with imagination who wants to be a writer. If you were a child who liked to read, these stories seemed to have been plucked from your soul.
Since my Scholastic Books days, I haven’t read many (if any) contemporary children’s books, such as The Baby-sitters Club. I get the impression they’re more realistic and issues-oriented. The literatures changes with the times and sensibilities, and I imagine the newer stories appeal to more than just sensitive, lonely spirits.
Bridge to Terabithia, from 1977, seemed like a step in the evolution of children’s books from the 1960s to today. In his rural, working-class world of seasonal employment and social conformity, Jess tries to hide his artistic proclivities from his family even as he uses his limited means to nurture them. In his father’s view, real men don’t draw. In a telling simile, Paterson writes, “Jess drew the way some men drink whiskey.”
While his parents are mired in the day-to-day concerns of poverty, and his older sisters in their acquisitiveness, Jess dreams of greatness—of running, of being the “fastest, the best” so “even his dad would be proud” and “forget all about how tired he was from the long drive back and forth to Washington.” His parents yearn for the money, stability, and security that will always be beyond their reach. Jeb yearns for the recognition, approval, and love that they keep out of his.
As a swan among ducks, Jess doesn’t have many friends beyond his little sister, May Belle, to whom he is kind and cruel. “Why couldn’t he quit picking on her?” She’s the one person who looks up to him, and the one person he can dominate. She’s also a “durn lucky kid”—she gets hugs and kisses from their father while Jess looks on enviously.
That, along with a crush on a young music teacher, another swan among ducks, is Jess’s life when Leslie Burke and her parents move in next door from the city. Upper middle-class urban hippies, they’re not like anyone Jess has known. To his horror, Leslie is faster than he is—faster than any boy. Jess soon finds out that her self-absorbed mother, a writer, pays no more attention to her than his parents pay to him.
Overcoming their differences and difficulties by focusing on her experiences and his dreams, Jess and Leslie create their own world, Terabithia, where they rule. Here, they come up with schemes to “slay” one of the giants of their real life, Janice Avery. Jess, who has never been a free spirit like Leslie, can’t always maintain his kingly manner. While she appears to listen “respectfully to someone talking to her, Jess was shivering, whether from the cold or the place, he didn’t know.” She isn’t afraid to take risks. Like his parents, he is.
To me, the problem with Bridge to Terabithia is that I could not cross it. Paterson’s portrayal of the meanness of home and school life in a struggling town is detailed and devastating. Like Jess, I wanted to escape to Terabithia, but like Jess I never fully experience it. Words like “kingly” and “Spirits” and “knightly” can’t evoke emotion when used sparingly without context. I can’t share Leslie’s passion for this land over the creek or why she’d risk so much for it. Jess knows what she thinks and wants to understand what she does, but he doesn’t feel it, and neither could I.
Bridge to Terabithia’s power lies in its transformational ending, when Jess can tell May Belle, “Everyone gets scared,” and his teacher can talk about her late husband that he never imagined she had. Even Leslie’s parents come to life at last; “Bill didn’t sound like himself” as he expresses his awareness and gratitude. We see Jess in the anger phase; “she had made him leave his old self behind” but she had “failed him.” At the same time, though, there’s a hint of Terabithia’s potential—to “make him see beyond to the shining world—huge and terrible and very fragile.”
Bridge to Terabithia’s underlying gritty realism carries the book. Its inability to get beyond Jess’s limited, but growing perspective—his frustrations, his emotional poverty, and his narrow frame of reference—mutes its power.
22 July 2017
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf