“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.”
Bridge To Terabithia is the story of Jess Aarons, a ten-year-old boy growing up in a difficult time and environment. He is surrounded by hard questions, poverty, a painful family situation. Then Leslie shows up. Leslie shows Jess a new way to look at the world around him. But then, tragically, Leslie dies. At first, Jess is in shock; he simply cannot believe that the person who brought so much beauty to his life is actually gone. When he finally comes to terms, though, with the fact that she is gone, he realizes just what Leslie has done for him.
Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins was wry and amusing and perhaps even poignant at times, but it lacked believability. Her less-known work, The Master Puppeteer is difficult and unappealing. Bridge To Terabithia is emotional, raw, and tough. I like that.
Paterson deals with complicated topics in her books. I do not recommend this. In fact, I think it’s a bad idea and something that authors should, as a rule, try to stay away from. Mishandling a delicate topic is probably the single most destructive thing an author could do. Topics like the ones she writes about – relational issues between family members and people’s distorted views of God and religion being two such topics that appear in both Bridge To Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved – mean either the instant death or instant celebrity of a novel: handle them the wrong way and failure is unavoidable. Paterson, however, has the rare gift of handling difficult topics with skill. I think this is particularly evident in Bridge To Terabithia.
Bridge To Terabithia is a small book – only about two hundred pages long – and took me roughly two hours to read, but while there were, as always, a few things about Paterson’s writing style that annoyed me, this book has a big impact and was deeply personal for me.
This book breaks my heart. Jess is really only a child, and yet he acts much older. Even more shocking is how old May Belle, who is just six, acts. Their life is difficult, the same way it is difficult for all the families in their community. Life has forced them to leave childhood behind far earlier than they should have to.
Jess is a talented child, but he feels the tacit disapproval of the adults in his life, which leads him to believe he is weird and that being an artist is not acceptable for a boy. This causes him to hide his talent and his real feelings, because he desperately craves approval – especially his father’s. The adults in Jess’ life are so scarred themselves that they cannot care for Jess properly. Hurting parents hurt their children, without wanting or meaning to, and this is especially true of Jess. When Jess’ father pays him any attention at all, it is in the form of criticism and harshness and too-high expectations. But Jess would never tell this to anyone, because he feels that it is his duty to hide his parents’ misdeeds.
Aside from his six-year-old little sister, May Belle, Jess despises his sisters. His two older sisters for their demanding self-centeredness, and his four-year-old sister for her timidity. Jess is disgusted to find that he emulates the behaviors he so despises in his sisters, but finds himself unable to stop.
Perhaps because of these painful circumstances, Jess has a distorted view of nearly everything around him. His parents, siblings, friendship, school, God, and his own value are all colored by how well his most basic needs for love and acceptance are met. Jess has exactly one positive adult influence in his life: his young, free-spirited music teacher, the only person who encourages Jess to draw, and is therefore the object of all his young, unrealistic passion.
Though Leslie seems like the hero of this story, Leslie is the one who takes Jess away from May Belle, causing her to become lonely and resentful of her older brother. And if Leslie hadn’t died, the barriers between Jess and his father would never have finally broken down, allowing them to connect in a way that Jess had been needing his whole life. His father is able to comfort Jess, holding him while he cries. Leslie’s death also makes Jess realize that he has been unreasonable and judgmental about other people. Mrs. Meyers, a teacher he had thought of as hypocritical and hard, he realizes, is a kind, caring woman with her own story of hurt to share.
Jess is painfully aware of the stark contrast between he and Leslie: she is bright and vivacious and he is slow and fearful. Leslie makes Jess feel inferior – cowardly and stupid, but Jess is, in some ways, superior to Leslie. While Leslie is vengeful and vindictive, Jess realizes that people are hurting, wants to help them, and does not like to hurt people.
The 2007 movie based on the book fell, in my opinion, epically short of the ideal. AnaSophia Robb highlights all of Leslie’s friendly sweetness and imagination without any of the anger or selfishness or loneliness that comes through so clearly in the book. Both Robb and Josh Hutcherson, who plays Jess with only mediocre success, are simply too old to play ten-year-old kids. They look to be in their early teens, skewing the whole perspective of the story.
I was never a fan of the movie, but I knew that other people who had read, and liked, the book were upset with how the movie turned out. At that point, I had never read the book, but was very familiar with the story through the movie. So it was good to finally read the book and immerse myself in the story as it was originally intended to be. Always read the book!
I highly recommend Bridge To Terabithia. It’s one of those books everyone should read.