Bridge to Terabithia (1977)

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

To what extent do our expectations colour our views? I had never read anything by Katherine Paterson until I read The Great Gilly Hopkins last February. Very good, I thought and then started the Bridge to Terabithia with high expectations: the book was a great disappointment to me.

And my disappointment made me judge Bridge to Terabithia too harshly, I realised this when I flicked through it recently. But it is still, a flawed story, and one that leaves too much unexplained. If we cannot understand the characters, we cannot sympathise with them, and so enter fully into the story, as we do in The Great Gilly Hopkins.

We know something about the origin of Bridge to Terabithia. When a friend of Katherine Paterson’s son was fatally struck by lightning, Katherine Paterson was moved to write a story about a friendship between two children which ends when one of them dies.

In Bridge to Terabithia, Leslie Burke and her parents have recently moved from the city to a rural community. The Burkes are well-off educated people who do not fit in. For the rural community, two of the Burkes’ striking oddities are not believing in God, and not owning a television.

The Aarons, their closest neighbours, are not well off, nor are they well-educated, the older sisters are particularly ignorant, and Mr and Mrs Aaron are too busy surviving financially to interest themselves in politics or the environment as Mr and Mrs Burke do. Jess Aaron (Jesse), one boy in the middle of four sisters, is the child closest in age to Leslie. Jess does not need another girl in his life and would have preferred if his new neighbour were a boy.

Mr Aaron too would have preferred a boy for his son. Jess is too unusual for his father; he cannot understand a boy who seeks peace in drawing and who is rather sensitive and solitary.

All the same, after a shaky start, Jess and Leslie soon become firm friends. The story begins well, but the characters do not engage our interest as much as those in The Great Gilly Hopkins. By and large the sharply individualised character is absent from Bridge to Terabithia. Mrs Aaron is no Mrs Trotter; Mr Aaron is no Mr Randolph; Miss Edmunds is no Miss Harris; and Jess is faint in comparison to Gilly. In short, with the exception of Leslie, the characters in Bridge to Terabithia are not very memorable.

In the beginning of the book, Leslie appears strong and independent, an excellent friend for Jess; she is capable of drawing him out. The ‘domestic’ happenings are very good: the children’s evolving friendship, their falling out and making it up with Janice Avery, and their relationship with their own families. These events, I think, contain enough material to fuel the story.

So, for me, the fantasy world of Terabithia disrupts the story. What need had Leslie, independent and resourceful as she was, to create Terbithia (located in a wood near where the children played). Is there something we have failed to understand about Leslie? We have not been told that she regretted leaving the city. There is little reference to her earlier life. We are, I believe, to understand that Leslie was happy to try the rural experiment. Leslie does not strike us as a child prone to take refuge in a fantasy world. She was very interested in the real world. She got on well with her parents and expressed no discontent with her rural life.

Or is the real shortcoming the fact that Terabithia is too sketchy? Leslie is its Queen and Jess its King. Jess, however, struggles with his role as King of Terabithia. And we, readers, struggle too to imagine Terabithia’s fascinations. We can’t help but feel that Katherine Paterson has left much to the reader’s imagination, and readers are not inclined to fill in gaps left by writers.

Although the children go to Terabithia during a spell of heavy rain, the compulsion appears to be Leslie’s. Jess is frightened by the rising river and would prefer to stay away. But he is also frightened of losing face in front of Leslie by appearing cowardly. However, when Jess is at his most reluctant, he is spared from making any decision: Miss Edmunds, out of the blue, takes him to an art gallery. She is a favourite of both children, so we do wonder why Miss Edmunds does not invite Leslie along or explain to Jess why she excludes Leslie

On that very day, Leslie goes or attempts to go to Terabithia and is killed when a rope she swings on snaps. Wouldn’t Leslie have been more likely to stay at home and amuse herself until the weather improved? She had many interests. Her urgent need for Terabithia comes as rather a surprise to us.

At the end of the story, May Belle, a younger sister of Jess’s, is crowned the new Queen of Terabithia. We don’t find this very natural. It is hard to envisage, without the imagination of Leslie, that there could have been any future for Terabithia. In any event, wouldn’t the children have wanted to forget about Terabithia as it was implicated in Leslie’s death?

Symbolism, no doubt, is part of Bridge to Terabithia, but I do not feel capable of interpreting it.

There are many fine things in Bridge to Terabithia but the story lacks a believable chain of cause and effect: particularly at the end when contrivance and coincidence play too large a part. Perhaps Katherine Paterson is compressing too much into those final pages or has failed to fully develop certain strands of the plot.

Terabithia, for some of us, is a spanner in the works of the far more interesting events in the children’s ‘real’ world. Leslie’s death, caused by the snapping of a rotten rope, could easily have been incorporated into a Terabithialess story, and been, I think, a better story. But I have a feeling that if Katherine Paterson had excised Terabithia from the book, she would have lost her Newberry Medal in 1978.

 

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