Faded Pages: Bridge to Terabithia
I was an awkward kid, and have only recently begun to cope with being an awkward human. Talking with friends later in life, I’ve been heartened in that it seems everyone felt like an outcast when they were thirteen. It's a strange time: too old for childish things, too young to be a proper adult.
That's where Bridge to Terabithia comes in. You read this when you were thirteen, and it resonated. Because you were an outcast, too. Because you wanted someone with whom you could build a bridge to someplace better. Because you didn't understand loss.
Years later, can you return to those charmed woods with Jess and Leslie and feel the same solace? Can Katherine Paterson's classic story soothe the burn of adult loneliness? I crossed that bridge once more to find out.
Spoiler alert! If you've not read the book (and the gist of this is that you should), I reveal a major plot element in this discussion which you may want to avoid.
Jess is a scrawny kid living in rural Virginia. He’s exceptional only in that he’s a fast runner—hoping to be the fastest kid in fifth grade at the book’s start—and whose only friends are the creatures he creates through his drawings. What he lacks in friends, he makes up for in sisters, four to be exact, with poor Jess wedged in the middle.
Jess’s running dreams are quickly quashed by the arrival of Leslie Burke, a tomboyish recent transplant from DC who schools him on the running field the first day of fifth grade (and jus sot happens to be his neighbor).
My first impression upon picking this book up again was Paterson’s use of language. This is a kids’ story, but she doesn’t pull punches when it comes to language, and I was impressed by one passage after another. In talking about Jess’s art, for example:
Jess drew the way some people drink whiskey. The peace would start at the top of his muddled brain and seep down through his tired and tensed-up body.
This is not your average fifth-grade-level writing.
Paterson expects a lot from her young readers, and that’s the first thing I love about this re-read. Nothing is dumbed down. The narrator is a close omniscient, getting into Jess’s thoughts and allowing the reader to empathize with him instantly. We learn that Jess loves to draw animals, but not your average cows or chickens, these are “crazy animals with problems”. Paterson recognizes that kids are deeper than the rest of the world gives them credit, and fills her characters with plausible traits and problems that a less confident writer might shy away from.
What kinds of problems? Loneliness, obviously. Alienation. I’ll get to those. Let’s talk about domestic abuse. It is revealed at one point that the story’s bully, one Janice Avery, is beaten by her father. Heavy stuff for a kids’ book, but not uncommon. Paterson takes it a step further. When Leslie and Jess find the indomitable Janice crying in the bathroom one day, it isn’t because her father beats her, but because when he beat her so badly that she felt compelled to confess to her friends, those friends turned around and spread the news through the whole school. Janice has become a laughingstock not because she’s beaten, but because she had the gall to talk about it. A light is now being shone not just on an unfortunate if not uncommon problem, but the cruelty of which children are capable.
Alienation and loneliness go hand in hand. Leslie, who’s left behind a posh school and friends in DC, and is the child of two progressive authors in a new town of blue collar workers, sticks out in the sticks with her choppy haircut and boyish dress. She’s ostracized for not having a television, for being friends with her parents (with whom she’s on a first name basis) and for earning the admiration of the vile fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Myers. She and Jess find kindred spirits in one another: Jess, a dreamer with an imagination too large for the small town in which he’s stuck, is entranced by Leslie’s “stories” (recitations of classic literature) and big ideas.
The everyday world isn’t kind to the pair, and so they create Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods between their houses where they rule as benevolent king and queen. One does not simply walk into Terabithia, of course: the only way in is to swing via an ancient rope across a gully.
I can remember being mildly disappointed when I read this as a child. Having been read Tolkien while I was still in a crib, my expectations for the kingdom of Terabithia were understandably high. Terabithia does not exist except inside Jess and Leslie’s minds. The Terabithians, the foes they vanquish, are unseen and go undescribed by Patterson. Like the kids in the story, the reader must fill in the details themselves in order to find the magic of the place. This isn’t a fantasy story; it’s a story about how fantasy makes life worth living.
Knowing this to be the case, this time around I was able to enjoy the book for what it was, and found myself more drawn to the happenings outside Terabithia than within. Paterson of course sets up parallels between the two: giants have been terrorizing Terabithia (and are of course vanquished through the valiant efforts of the king and queen). In the real world, overweight bully Janice is the giant, and is likewise vanquished, though she is redeemed later as previously discussed.
There is an interesting lesson here on the complicated nature of relationships. Jess is smitten with his hippie music teacher, Miss Edmunds, and at the book’s beginning she is almost a fantasy friend in Jess’s mind: someone who understands him, pays attention to him, teaches him things he couldn’t otherwise learn in this place. Once Leslie enters his life, he relies less on Miss Edmunds and is able to form a healthy friendship with a girl his age.
Cut to the climax: Miss Edmunds invites Jess to a DC museum one rainy morning, and while he’s away Leslie falls and drowns on her lonesome way into Terabithia. Jess is left feeling as though he made the wrong choice in going with Miss Edmunds; that he should have brought Leslie; that he’s somehow responsible for her death. To me, this spoke volumes about the choices we make when it comes to the ones we love. Rarely do our choices end in the death of someone close to us, but there do exist unexpected trade-offs in our relationships.
Jess is able to deal with Leslie’s death in a much healthier way than Where the Red Fern Grows’ poor Billy Coleman. His parents support him, and he has Leslie’s parents with which to share a modicum of his grief. Even nasty Mrs. Myers has a heart-to-heart with Jess on his first day back to school without Leslie, in which she shares her own story of loss. Paterson really shines in these final scenes, tenderly revealing the meandering stages of Jess's grief, the awkwardness that comes with comforting someone in a time of such profound loss, and finally the path to healing.
By the end of the story Jess understands that Terabithia is a transient place that exists to fill a need:
Now it occurred to him that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on.
Terabithia doesn’t have an age limit. Its borders are open to anyone who seeks it, who has a space in their life that needs patching; you only need a friend to guide you there.
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