Katherine Patterson is one of only five authors to twice win the Newbery medal. She delivers powerful, thought-provoking stories, beautifully written with a depth of emotion and meaning. The kind of stories I love, yet I wouldn’t count either of her Newbery winners among my favorites. Personal preference, I suppose. Yet there is much I admire within Bridge to Terabithia. And some I wrestle with.
Written in 1977, it captures the flavor of the 70’s. To those of us who grew up in that era, it is nostalgic. For younger readers, it’s a time capsule waiting to be opened. Yet Jess’s experiences transcend decades. For this is a story of friendship, placed in a glass bottle and examined from lots of angles, then dumped out and smashed. For this is also a story of loss.
Jess lives a rough life. The farm hardly supports a family, yet his dad struggles to find work. His two older sisters are selfish, lazy snobs; his two younger sisters are obnoxious tag-alongs, which leaves Jess to bear the brunt of chores. Enter Leslie Burke.
After a rocky start, Leslie, with her imagination, her frank honesty and her love of life, demonstrates a new kind of friendship. Not like at school, where the guys compete to be the best and battle for control, but friendship based on mutual respect and acceptance. With Leslie, it’s okay for Jess to be less than brilliant. It’s okay that he’s not the fastest runner in the fifth grade. It’s even okay for him to be afraid. Together, Jess and Leslie create an imaginary kingdom of Terabithia that becomes for Jess a highlight in his imperfect world. It’s their secret; special, guarded and precious. Yet Jess’s newfound joy mingles with tragedy.
Terabithia probes the very touchy subject of death. Not only the overwhelming emotions, but also the questions. After an Easter service that Leslie found fascinating and Jess found boring, Leslie says, “It’s crazy, isn’t it? You have to believe it (Christianity), but you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” May Belle, Jess’s little sister, is horrified that Leslie doesn’t believe the Bible. “But what if you die?” she asks. “What’s going to happen if you die?”
After Leslie dies, the book does provide an answer to May Belle’s question. A very controversial one. Jess asks his father:
“Do you believe people go to hell, really go to hell, I mean?”
“You ain’t worrying about Leslie Burke?”
I did seem peculiar, but still–“Well, May Belle said…”
“May Belle? May Belle ain’t God.”
“Yeah, but how do you know what God does?”
“Lord, boy, don’t be a fool. God ain’t gunna send any little girls to hell.”
In conclusion, Bridge to Terabithia provides a sweet tale based on the true, tragic events of Mrs. Patterson’s son’s childhood. One that gently illustrates the joys of friendship and the heartache of loss.
Note to parents: This book is well-written, but consider your child’s age and sensitivity. Also, it does contain some mild swearing.