Stories about death are tricky. Stories about death for kids are especially tricky, like using finishing nails—hit them wrong and you bend the nail and ruin the wood, but hit them right and everything comes together beautifully. Katherine Paterson has written many stories about death for younger readers, but experience alone doesn't make you a master.
Her most famous book, Bridge to Terabithia, is a perfect example. The story of fifth graders and best friends Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke, it follows the two as they battle school bullies with cunning rather than strength, talk about life, and (most importantly) rule their imaginary kingdom of Terabithia in the Virginia woods between their houses.
Jess's family are poor, with a small farm and an out-of-work dad who pays more attention to Jess's sisters than his only son. He has to milk the cow twice a day, get yelled at by his mom and older sisters, and draw in secret so his family doesn't make fun of him. He gets up early to run so that he'll be the fastest boy in the fifth grade come the school year.
Leslie's family, on the other hand, is more "open." Her parents, whom she calls Bill and Judy, are writers who read many languages, have lots of books, and never yell at their daughter or Jess. They encourage creativity, let the kids help them renovate their old house, don't have a TV, and (to Jess's initial chagrin) have plenty of money.
Both kids have a problem: they don't fit where they are. Leslie is a city girl with liberal parents who is shunned by her new school mates, and Jess is a creative boy whose parents frown on his interests and yell at him a lot. Together, they become the center of each others's lives, the king and queen of Terabithia with their own treehouse and "sacred grove."
When Leslie dies, Jess is forced to grapple with her absence, and reconcile himself to his family, especially his little sister May Belle who worships the ground he walks on. It's not entirely clear whether people actually change their attitude toward him, or whether he just understands better, but by the end Jess seems a little older and more at peace in his world.
It's a story with plenty of potential, but Paterson fails to realize it. For one thing, she rushes through things in a way that keeps the characters from ever fully materializing; things happen very abruptly, and the whole thing has a breathlessness that makes it difficult to identify with anyone.
Much more tragic, however, is Paterson's worldview. This isn't really a children's novel, in many ways—first published in 1977, it's more a manifesto of liberal secular social values. Time and again, the Aarons's conservatism is lampooned, compared unfavorably to the liberalism of the Burkes and the music teacher, Miss Edmunds.
At one point, the Aarons family goes to church, accompanied by Leslie. Paterson directly attacks essential Christian doctrines, and compares Jesus's death to those of Abraham Lincoln and Socrates, completely robbing it of any distinct redemptive element in the sense of salvation from sin, death and the devil.
In this setting, the realism Paterson employs is just uncomfortable and annoying. The kids use bad language, Jess punches his sister in the face and doesn't get in trouble, parents belittle their children, kids talk back and whine without consequence, Jess steals some art supplies from school, etc.
Particularly frustrating is that many references are made to The Chronicles of Narnia, and yet the truth C. S. Lewis celebrated is directly undercut in Bridge to Terabithia. For instance, Eustace Scrubb calls his parents by their first names in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and this is frowned on, but in Paterson's novel Leslie treats her parents the same way and is celebrated.
While the last couple pages are tender, the overall tone (despite Paterson's best efforts) is one of nihilism and despair. There is no real hope for Leslie (except Jess's dad's assurance that God would never send a little girl to hell), and the only thing left for Jess is to remember her. It's a bleak ending to a bleak tale that's little better than a mess of bent nails and smashed wood.
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