- Continuing my exploration of critically acclaimed books, I recently finished the wonderful book by Katherine Paterson, the ‘Bridge to Terabithia’.
Again, I did not go looking for any details or ploy analysis for this book. One of the things I do love about reading books on the Kindle is the fact I’m not distracted by cover art, author details, or back-cover plot-lines.
From early on the story clearly covers the growing pains of a fairly simple, yet artistic, 10 year old boy (Jesse) and his attraction to the new girl in town and in his class (Leslie). Jesse’s family is very disjointed and, being the only man in the house for the most part, Jesse’s world is full of over-bearing siblings, a mother who does not really want him, and a younger sister who dotes on everything he does.We don’t really see his father, who works away during the week, and is only really mentioned in passing the rest of the time (until the end) as an way to lead the reader into a deeper understanding of Jesse’s deep emotional turmoil in a female-led cast around him.
Leslie, on the other hand, comes from a far more relaxed, liberal, and open family. Her parents are very different to Jesse’s, in fact different to just about everything else in the book; her mum (Judy) is a writer (we presume fiction) and dad (Bill) a political writer. That they have money, but no TV, is spelt out quite early on, but Leslie’s insistence on calling them by their names, not ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ is something Jesse has difficulty coming to terms with – he could not understand having a conversation with his own parents, so is very guarded and reluctant to engage with Leslie’s parents, even though they welcome it.
Through their shared experiences at school, and a matched separation from ‘reality’ (Jesse’s detachment to his peers and family due to his love of drawing, and Leslie’s detachment at being new in town) they form a bond and create this magical world of Terabithia. A place they can only talk about to each other, no one else is to know about it, or ever visit.
The growth of the friendship is something that is never discussed or reflected on, certainly not in a romantic or sexual way, but the question about Jesse’s attachment to Leslie at a vulnerable and influential time in his formative years, approaching puberty, can’t be ignored. We know Jesse has a very strong romantic ‘crush’ on his music teacher, Miss. Edmunds, and it’s after an unexpected visit to the art galleries and museums of Washington that the story totally blew me away!
I was not expecting the sudden change that happened. Not only is the book not about the growth of affection or inner strength (more on this later), it’s about how Jesse comes to terms with adult thoughts, adult emotions, and adult responsibilities. At first he refuses to believe Leslie is dead. He argues that she can come back if only he carries on his normal routine. Jesse is going through the normal stages of grief, even if he doesn’t realise it, of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, by the end of the book, acceptance.
When is comes to it, he is genuinely happy for Judy and Bill to take the puppy, Prince Terrain with them when they leave (“It’s OK. Leslie would want you to keep him.”). By this time he’s accepted Leslie’s death, saved May Belle from the same watery creek, and built both a physical bridge to Terabithia as well as the mental, metaphysical one for him and May Belle to reach Terabithia both safely and more easily.
Jesse’s outburst at his little sister May Belle is almost as shocking as Leslie’s death. Despite everything Jesse is and has gone through this is the most out of character thing he does, even more so than heading off to Washington with Miss Edmunds without, selfishly, telling anyone about it.
“She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there–like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone.”
The most endearing and memorable part of the last stage of the book is the short exchange Jesse has with his most hated teacher, Mrs Myers. After being ordered out of the classroom, on his first day back to school after Leslie’s death, Mrs Myers shows a tenderness he’d never considered her having, briefly touching on how she was told to move on and stop crying over her late husband (“He wanted to comfort her. He wanted to unsay all the things he had said about here – even unsay the things Leslie had said”). Despite himself he genuinely felt a connection to her, also re-emphasising his own personal growth and changed perception of his world and the people in it.
The end is fittingly gentle and sweet, satisfactorily so. To have such open tenderness between Jesse and May Belle, in fact with anyone, at any other time in the book would have spoiled his journey. I’m still not sure we needed such a violent outburst, especially against the doting little sister of May Belle, but it did help to justify his grief, and the vast change and journey he’d been on in order to reach the end and build the Bridge to Terabithia.
A wonderfully enchanting book I’m glad I’ve read, I’m pretty certain it’s not one I would ever have chosen, and a little disappointed it’s not higher on the list.
Held my interest: 8/10
Captured my imagination: 8/10
Worth reading: 8/10