Bridge to Terabithia

Some books remain stuck in your memory, while others gently fade away.  There is a moment at the beginning of Wind in the Willows, at the end of the first paragraph, that is unshakeably embedded in my mind:  “Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.”  Wonderfully evocative.

Or I could have mentioned another vignette which summarised a whole character, in this case of Winnie-the-Pooh, as he was exercising, in A A Milne’s book of the same name, beautifully illustrated by E H Shepard.  “He has made up a little hum that very morning, as he was doing his Stoutness Exercises in front of the glass: Tra-la-la tra-la-la as he stretched up as high as he could go, and then tra-la-la tra-la – oh, help! – la, as he tried to reach his toes.”  That bear!

It isn’t always an enjoyable image.  Sometimes it is a painful moment.  For me, one of these unavoidable memories has to do with the children’s novel Bridge to Terabithia.  There is a moment in that book, when a boy returns from Washington to find his friend is dead that remains fresh and clear in my mind,  ready to reduce me to tears again if I allow myself the time to think about it.  Why has this book, among so many others, had such an impact?  It’s because it is beautifully written, powerful, and it’s become personal.  Let me try to explain.

Katherine Paterson was 32 years old when she began writing, compiling curriculum materials for fifth and sixth graders.  Nine years later her first children’s novel, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum was published.  However, when a friend of her son was struck and killed by lightning, she wanted to write something about a tragedy that seemed to have no meaning.  The result was Bridge to Terabithia, which I found stunning when I first read it, and its emotional impact hasn’t diminished each time I’ve reread it.

Paterson has always been cautious about what she expects a reader to get from one of her books:  “It makes me happy that readers get many different things, according to their own needs and life experience.  One of my most meaningful responses came from [the girl who was killed by lightning’s] mother, who said until she read the book, she hadn’t realised how angry she was at her daughter for dying.”  Maybe she’s correct in observing there can be different responses to her work, but I suspect most readers respond to the book as I have.

The events of Bridge to Terabithia centre around two children named Leslie and Jesse.  Ten-year-old Jesse “Jess” Aarons has trained all summer to be the fastest runner in his rural school.  Secretly, he wants to be an artist, but his father disapproves. He has a crush on the school music teacher, Miss Edmunds, the only person who encourages him to draw. New neighbours arrive, the Burkes, and Leslie Burke, is a wealthy 10-year-old tomboy from Arlington, Virginia.  To Jess’s amazement and shock, Leslie outruns everyone, and beats him in every race.  The other students mock her for being a teacher’s pet and for not owning a television.  When Jess defends Leslie from Janice Avery, a seventh-grade bully, they become friends.  They play near an almost dry creek behind Leslie’s house.  They pretend they are the king and queen of a hidden magical kingdom, Terabithia, that can be entered only by swinging over an almost dry creek bed on an old rope.

When Jess’s six-year-old sister May Belle brings Twinkies to school for lunch, Janice Avery steals them.  To get back at her, Jess and Leslie forge a love letter to Janice from a student  she likes.  The letter suggests a time and place for a date, and Janice is humiliated when he doesn’t show up.  Months later, Leslie hears Janice crying in the bathroom.  Jess convinces Leslie to help Janice.  Janice tells Leslie that she is abusively beaten by her father, and her so-called friends have just gossiped about it to the entire seventh grade.  Leslie comforts Janice by telling her that everyone will forget about it in a week.  That night, May Belle tells Jess that she followed him and Leslie to the creek.  He makes her swear never to follow them again nor to tell their mother.

At Easter, Leslie goes to church with Jess’s family.  While she calls the story of Jesus  “beautiful”, she doubts it.  This upsets May Belle, who believes God will damn Leslie to hell when she dies.  That week, rain fills the creek bed with a rushing river.  By Wednesday evening, Jess is too scared to swing over the river, while Leslie remains unafraid.  On the following morning, Miss Edmunds calls Jess and invites him to Washington to visit the Smithsonian that day.  When he returns home, Leslie is dead:  the rope broke as she swung over the river, and she drowned.

Jess asks his father whether Leslie is in hell, and his father assures him she isn’t.  Using a large branch, Jess crosses the stream to Terabithia, where he makes a funeral wreath for Leslie.  May Belle, who has followed him, makes it halfway across the branch before becoming too scared to continue.  Jess has to guide her backwards to land.

Jess’s teacher, Mrs. Myers, tells him that when her husband died, people tried to make her forget, but she didn’t want to.  Using scrap lumber left behind by the Burkes, Jess builds a bridge across the creek bed.  He puts flowers in May Belle’s hair, leads her across the bridge, and they begin to play in Terabithia, with May Belle as the new queen.

This skeleton of the story gives no hint of the rich and complex characters in the story.  Jess is compelling, an outsider, a boy who wants to draw but lacks self-confidence, fearful, often angry and depressed.  His family is rural poor, and he is expected to help in family chores, especially milking their one cow, his everyday responsibility.  Scrappily clothed, on the margin, he’s fascinated by the unconventional Miss Edmunds.  It is a nice twist in the story that she is the person who takes Jess to Washington for the first time in his life, to see the galleries and the natural history exhibits, and this is on the day when Leslie slips and dies crossing the creek.  He has a crush on the very person whose thoughtful offer led to his being away from the scene when otherwise he might have saved Leslie.

Rather than dwell on the details of the story, I want to take a different perspective.  Without getting involved in all the disputes that have developed since her work, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified a useful set of processes that it seems many people follow in dealing with death and other traumatic events.  In her initial model, she spoke of a linear set of steps, but I think it is more realistic to identify the various processes as stages, acknowledging that it does make sense to recognise that some often precede others.  Published in 1977, I found Bridge to Terabithia deeply moving, evidencing Kübler-Ross’s stages.  However, rereading it in the 2000s it hit home even harder, at a time I was responding to the death of my wife.

Certainly, initial feelings of shock are unavoidable in nearly every situation, even if we feel we have had time to prepare for the loss of a loved one.  Jess shows all the signs of initial shock, unable to process what he is being told, as if there is a gap between himself and everyone else.  I experienced this very clearly.  It was if I comprised two people, one interacting with others, especially my daughter, and the other closed off, in some kind of private world.  Shock is tangle up with denial, the first of Kubler-Ross’s stages.  Jess immediately claims what he is being told is wrong, a mistake, that what he’s been told simply can’t be true.  My wife’s decline and death took place over a few months.  I wasn’t shocked, nor in denial, but like Jess, I felt isolated, stuck in an emotional bubble for a while.

Denial can only be a short-term response if it develops at all.  Jess wasn’t by the river when Leslie fell in, he was in Washington, and without any evidence, denial comes easily.  It seems to me that denial is always tangled up with the second of Kubler-Ross’s stages, anger, and Paterson offers a horribly convincing account of Jess’s interactions with his family, shouting at his sisters, lashing out at everyone, only stopping when his father, clumsily but with great feeling, embraces him without arguing, just patiently holding him  and providing a sense of stability in a maelstrom of emotions.  His outer anger with the world is a displacement.  His real anger is internal: how could he have let this happen?  Why hadn’t he been with Leslie when she swung over the stream?

Anger can be a slow burn.  My wife died many years ago, but I am still grappling with those of Kübler-Ross’s questions I first confronted years ago.  ‘Why me?  It’s not fair!’  ‘How can this happen to me?’  ‘Who is to blame?’  ‘Why did this happen?’  To begin with, my emotions were about my wife and myself:  Why hadn’t she sought treatment for problems earlier?  Why hadn’t I acted before it was too late?  Now the emotional burden is different, more manageable, and more existential:  Why do things like this happen?

Kübler-Ross suggests another early stage is ‘bargaining’, the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief by making some kind of deal.  Unless you are a firm believer in the amazing powers of the Almighty, bargaining is a little late if someone is already dead.  No bargaining for Jess, no bargaining for me.

Another phase in coping with loss is depression.  In Kübler-Ross’s terms, this is when an individual contemplates various questions:  ‘I’m so sad, why bother with anything?’  ‘I’m going to die soon, so what’s the point?’;  ‘I miss my loved one; why go on?’  She suggests that in this stage an individual “despairs at the recognition of their mortality. In this state, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.”  When Jess goes back to the stream where Leslie had drowned, he throws the paper and paints she had given him at Christmas into the water:

“The paints floated on top, riding the current like a boat, but the papers swirled about, soaking in the muddy water, being sucked down, around, and down.  He watched them disappear.  Gradually his breathing quieted, and his heart slowed from its wild pace.  The ground was still muddy from the rains, but he sat down anyway.  There was nowhere to go.  Nowhere.  Ever again.  He put his head down on his knee.

‘That was a damn fool thing to do.”  His father sat down on the dirt beside him.

“I don’t care.  I don’t care.”  He was crying now, crying so hard he could scarcely breathe.

His father pulled Jess over on his lap, as though he were Joyce Ann.  “There. There”, he said, patting his head.  “Shhh. Shhh.

“I hate her,” Jess said through his sobs.  “I hate her. I wish I’d never seen her in my whole life”.

His father stroked his hair without speaking.  Jess grew quiet. They both watched the water.

Finally, his father said, “Hell, ain’t it?”  It was the kind of thing Jess could hear his father saying to another man.  He found it strangely comforting, and it made him bold.

Was this the necessary step before reaching ‘acceptance’, the final phase in the Kübler-Ross framework?  She suggests this is “when we understand ‘It’s going to be okay’; ‘I can’t fight it; I may as well prepare for it’.  In this last of the stages, individuals embrace mortality and the death of a loved one, or another similarly tragic event.  In coming to terms with a person dying, survivors acquire a manageable perspective, typically a calmer understanding of what happened, which allows them to develop a more stable and balanced set of emotions.”

Jess does move forward, and does so through May Belle, one of Jess’s younger sisters.  As she is only six years old, and he is 10, she can’t be a true  confidante for him, but she has been the closest to him from the beginning.  We know that she, like Jess, feels she doesn’t have a place in the family.  By making May Belle the new queen in Terabithia, Jess brings her into his world, a place where they can share a degree of mutual empathy.

It is beautifully written.  According to The Horn Book Magazine in 1978, “Jess and his family are magnificently characterized; the book abounds in descriptive vignettes, humorous sidelights on the clash of cultures, and realistic depictions of rural school life. The symbolism of falling and of building bridges forms a theme throughout the story, which is one of remarkable richness and depth, beautifully written”.  Another critic wrote  “The poignant story is all the more effective because Paterson lets Jesse express his grief and guilt rather than telling readers that he feels them. There is no glossing-over; nor is there a reaching for dramatic effect.”  (Zena Sutherland, Newberry and Caldecott Medal Books, 1976-1985

Does Jess move on?  We leave him taking May Belle into Terabithia, but we feel confident he will be strong, even courageous, and certainly will let go of the frustrations that had dominated his life before he met Leslie.  However, ‘acceptance’ is a curious term to use.  Jess does accept what happened, in the sense he understood how Leslie died, and could see it factually.  However, I suspect most readers will feel that he will always regret her death, accepting it only in his father’s sense of “Hell, aint it”.  I think it is part of Katherine Paterson’s success that she is a realist:  this is what happens in life, and you have to accept that events take place with consequences you’d rather ignore or avoid, but you can’t.

Jess and May Belle know, as they walk over to Terabithia, there had been another queen, one to be celebrated, one who won’t be forgotten.  For myself, I know there are days when I want to go out and shout and scream, cry for a wife who died too young.  I don’t, of course, just recourse to the good old British stiff upper lip!  Bridge for Terabithia is a special book for me, not just for the words, the story, but because of the truth it offers about love and loss.

There’s one final comment to be made about Paterson’s novel.  It is a frequent target for censorship in the US and was at number eight on the American Library Association’s list of  the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books for the decade 1990–2000.  Why?  Reasons cited include death being part of the plot; Jesse’s frequent use of the word ‘lord’ outside of prayer; allegations that it promotes secular humanism, New Age religion, occultism, and Satanism; and the use of offensive language.  I can’t understand why anyone want to ban a book that speaks so clearly to the challenges young people can and do face, and how they can address disaster by acknowledging what has happened and find ways to move forward?  Hell, aint it.