Bridge to Terabithia
Bridge to Terabithia
(Full name Katherine Womeldorf Paterson) Chinese-born American essayist, critic, translator, and author of juvenile novels, picture books, young adult short stories, and young adult novels.
The following entry presents commentary on Paterson's young adult novel Bridge to Terabithia (1977) through 2005. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volumes 7 and 50.
One of the select few young adult novels to address the topic of childhood death in a realistic and humanistic manner, Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (1977) chronicles a year in the lives of two lonely children who establish their own imaginary universe. A dichotomous blend of realism and fantasy, Bridge to Terabithia has been commended for its honest exploration of juvenile grief and its three-dimensional portrait of two young friends as they navigate the hardships of early adolescence. Inspired in part by the tragic death of a friend of Paterson's son, Bridge to Terabithia has won several prominent accolades, among them, the 1978 Newbery Medal, the Janusz Korczak Medal, and the Le Grand Prix des Jeunes Lecteurs. The basis for two separate film adaptations, in 1985 and 2007, Bridge to Terabithia has also attracted mild controversy concerning whether the text's vivid presentation of mortality is appropriate for young readers.
Paterson was born on October 31, 1932, in Tsing-Tsiang pu (or alternately Qing Jiang), China, the third of five children in a family of American Southern Presbyterian missionaries. Paterson and her family lived in China for five years before they twice became refugees—first in 1937 when war between China and Japan forced their return to the United States for a year and again in 1940 when World War II forced them out of China permanently. Back in the United States, they moved frequently during Paterson's childhood and adolescence, living in fifteen different houses over thirteen years. In 1954 Paterson graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English literature from King College in Bristol, Tennessee, and later received a M.A. in English Bible from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, in 1957. Following her graduation, Paterson served as a missionary in Japan for four years—an experience that had a profound effect on her later writing career. (She utilized Japan as the setting for her first three novels.) After returning to the U.S., Paterson earned a M.R.E. in 1962 from the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. That same year, she met and married John Barstow Paterson, a Presbyterian minister. The couple settled in Takoma Park, Maryland, and Paterson worked as a teacher until her children were born. Her family later grew to include two sons and two adopted daughters—one born in Hong Kong, the other on an Apache Indian reservation. In 1964 Paterson began her professional writing career formulating curricula for school systems. She eventually began writing fiction and, nine years later, her first novel, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, was published in 1973. While her literary career began flourishing during the 1970s, Paterson was also faced with a number of difficult personal events, including surviving a cancerous tumor and losing her mother to cancer. During this period, her young son David lost a close friend who was tragically struck by lightning. While attending the annual meeting of the Children's Book Guild of Washington that same year, Paterson recounted her son's recent loss to the attendees, and Anne Durell, an editor for Dutton Publishing's children's literature imprint, suggested that the incident could be the basis for a children's novel. Thus, Paterson began writing the manuscript for Bridge to Terabithia, which became a critical and popular success. Aided in part by the strong reception of Bridge to Terabithia, Paterson went on to win a second Newbery in 1981 for Jacob Have I Loved (1980), as well as the Hans Christian Andersen Award for lifetime achievement in 1998, and most recently, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2006.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
The plot principally centers on Jesse Aarons, the only son of five children, who serves as the narrator for the events of Bridge to Terabithia. While his mother favors her daughters, Jesse's father, driven to take a job in distant Washington, D.C., is too consumed with keeping his family afloat to pay Jesse much attention. Jesse hopes to gain his father's pride by winning the annual boy's foot race on the first day of school, an event for which he has been practicing all summer. However, his plans are ruined by the presence of Leslie Burke, a free-spirited new girl in town. Despite the anger her participation in the race inspires in the other children—a girl competing in a traditionally all-male event—she nonetheless wins the race, earning her the status as an outcast at the school. Unconcerned with her unpopularity, Leslie latches onto Jesse, her neighbor and the only boy who spoke out for her right to run the race. Over time, they become best friends; Jesse offers the lonely Leslie his friendship, and, in return, she provides him with exposure to the world of fantasy through such works as C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Together, with their parents otherwise occupied, the two friends start to play in a neighboring patch of trees accessible only by a rope-swing hanging over a small creek. They visualize the woods as being a fantastical kingdom they christen "Terabithia," with Jesse and Leslie serving as its rulers. Over time, Jesse and Leslie spend an increasing amount of time with each other's families; Jesse helps Leslie and her father repair their house, while Leslie participates in Jesse's religious activities, including a key scene at Easter Mass. As spring arrives, rains cause the creek they cross to Terabithia to swell, and Jesse reminds himself to warn Leslie. But, before he does, he is invited to a Washington, D.C. art exhibit by a sympathetic teacher named Miss Edmunds. For Jesse, who harbors dreams of being an artist, a dream not encouraged by his parents, it is a nearly perfect day. However, when he returns home, Jesse is confronted by his family who inform him that Leslie is dead, having drowned when the rope-swing broke, causing her to fall into the swollen creek. Jesse is overcome with grief and is virtually inconsolable over his loss. In his confusion and pain, he finds himself unable to understand what has happened and is frightened to see both Leslie's father grieve and Leslie's body in her casket. When his younger sister, May Belle—who idolizes him—asks Jesse what Leslie looked like in the coffin, he slaps her and runs away. After he throws the art supplies Leslie gave him for Christmas into the creek, his father finds him and attempts to comfort his son as best he can. During his grieving process, Jesse finds sympathy from unlikely sources, especially from his teacher, Mrs. Myers, whom both Jesse and Leslie had disliked. Mrs. Myers is surprisingly empathetic to Jesse and tells him about the death of her husband. When the creek finally recedes, Jesse decides to return to Terabithia in Leslie's memory and finds that a fallen tree branch now bridges the river. He builds a wreath in Leslie's honor and declares her queen of Terabithia. Suddenly, he hears a cry of terror and finds May Belle quivering in fear on the branch, having tried to follow her brother to Terabithia. Helping her across, Jesse initiates his sister into Leslie and his secret kingdom, an act he is certain Leslie would have wanted him to do. As the story ends, Jesse is seen building a primitive bridge to Terabithia, with the implication that May Belle and his youngest sister Joyce Ann will be joining him in the future.
There are several dominant themes throughout the text of Bridge to Terabithia, most notably, questions of religion, friendship, isolation, and death. The notion of "bridge-building" is another recurring motif in the novel, with Paterson constructing both physical bridges and emotional bridges between her characters. For example, though they are opposites in many regards—Jesse is a boy, the middle child of a large local family struggling economically, and Leslie is the only child of well-educated parents who have moved to the country to reassess their values—the children are able to bridge their various differences and create a friendship built on their mutual respect and empathy. Additionally, the two children's various strengths and weaknesses compliment each other so well that their camaraderie strengthens each of them as individuals. At one point, Paterson describes Jesse's joy at discovering a new friend as: "For the first time in his life he got up every morning with something to look forward to. Leslie was more than his friend. She was his other, more exciting self—his way to Terabithia and the worlds beyond." Other unlikely bridges are crossed as well, such as turning the school bully, Janice Avery, into a sympathetic ally after Jesse and Leslie console her when they learn that her aggression is the outgrowth of abuse at home. Craig W. Barrow has found this particular event representative of one of Bridge to Terabithia's primary missions: "The bridge building that one sees Leslie and Jess doing with their former enemy, Janice Avery, is representative of an activity one sees repeated many times in the novel." But per- haps the most symbolic bridge comes at the end of the novel, showing Jesse's emotional growth after Leslie's death. When Jesse is seen building a physical bridge to Terabithia so that his young sisters can have access—and to prevent further tragedy—it highlights Jesse's growth as a person, assets instilled by his time with Leslie. Sue Misheff has noted that, "Leslie's death provides the cathartic event for Jess's artistic and personal growth … He has been a boy until Leslie's death; now he must move on toward adulthood, accepting the pain as well as the joy that life offers." However, while many critics and readers focus on Bridge to Terabithia as a book about grieving and death, other critics have been quick to dismiss mortality as the text's primary event, with Joel D. Chaston arguing that, "the book is not even really about death, but friendship."
Among Paterson's most critically lauded books, Bridge to Terabithia has been an international bestseller since its initial publication. The novel has won a host of prestigious awards; in addition to the Newbery Medal, the Polish Janusz Korczak Medal, and the French Jeunes Lecturs Award, Bridge to Terabithia has been recognized with the Dutch Silver Pencil Award, the School Library Journal Best Book of 1977 Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award. While childhood morality has often been regarded as a taboo subject by some in the children's literature genre, Paterson has attracted consistent acclaim for her novel's grace, realism, and insight into a child's perspective on death. Alleen Pace Nilsen and Kenneth L. Donelson have suggested that, "Paterson's novel set impossible high standards that no other such book about the death of a friend has equaled." Pat R. Scales has further argued that, in Bridge to Terabithia, "Katherine Paterson speaks to her readers because she has a genuine and honest understanding of the realities of life, and she recognizes the importance of fantasy in everyone's world." However, some critics have warned against using Bridge to Terabithia as a work of bibliotherapy—the practice of using books that readers can emotionally identify with to help them cope with psychologically traumatic events. Joel D. Chaston, for example, has asserted that, "books like Bridge to Terabithia should not be used as a cure of or fast solution to the problems children face. It is only when literature stimulates readers to look within themselves and search their hearts for their own solutions to problems that it is effective." A few parent groups have taken issue with Bridge to Terabithia's use of adult language, fantasy escapism, and mortality, which has inspired several censorship challenges against the book in a select number of school districts. Regardless, Karen Hirsch has argued that such complaints are ultimately shortsighted, stating that, "although Bridge to Terabithia does have in it the ‘profanity, vulgar language, and swear words’ that some censors offer as reasons to ban, the complex characters and moving story by far transcend the fact that children see those words in print."
The Sign of the Chrysanthemum [illustrations by Peter Landa] (young adult novel) 1973
Of Nightingales That Weep [illustrations by Haru Wells] (young adult novel) 1974
The Master Puppeteer [illustrations by Haru Wells] (young adult novel) 1975
Bridge to Terabithia [illustrations by Donna Diamond] (young adult novel) 1977
The Great Gilly Hopkins (young adult novel) 1978
Angels and Other Strangers: Family Christmas Stories (young adult short stories) 1979; published in the United Kingdom as Star of Night: Stories for Christmas
Jacob Have I Loved (young adult novel) 1980
Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom (young adult novel) 1983
Come Sing, Jimmy Jo (young adult novel) 1985
Park's Quest (young adult novel) 1988
The Smallest Cow in the World [illustrations by Jane Clark Brown] (juvenile novel) 1988
The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks [illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon] (picture book) 1990
Lyddie (young adult novel) 1991
The King's Equal [illustrations by Vladimir Vagin] (picture book) 1992
Flip-Flop Girl (young adult novel) 1994
A Midnight Clear: Stories for the Christmas Season (young adult short stories) 1995
The Angel and the Donkey [illustrations by Alexander Koshkin] (picture book) 1996
Jip: His Story (young adult novel) 1996
Marvin's Best Christmas Present Ever [illustrations by Jane Clark Brown] (juvenile novel) 1997
Celia and the Sweet, Sweet Water [illustrations by Vladimir Vagin] (picture book) 1998
Images of God [with John Paterson; illustrations by Alexander Koshkin] (young adult short stories) 1998
Parzival: The Quest of the Grail Knight (young adult novel) 1998
Preacher's Boy (young adult novel) 1999
The Wide-Awake Princess [illustrations by Vladimir Vagin] (picture book) 2000
The Field of the Dogs [illustrations by Emily Arnold McCully] (young adult novel) 2001
Marvin One Too Many [illustrations by Jane Clark Brown] (juvenile novel) 2001
The Same Stuff as Stars (young adult novel) 2002
Blueberries for the Queen [with John Paterson; illustrations by Susan Jeffers] (picture book) 2004
Bread and Roses, Too (young adult novel) 2006
The Crane Wife [by Sumiko Yagawa; illustrations by Suekichi Akaba] (young adult novel) 1981
The Tongue-Cut Sparrow [by Momoko Ishii; illustrations by Suekichi Akaba] (young adult novel) 1987
Selected Other Works
Who Am I?: Exploring What It Means to Be a Child of God (essays) 1966; revised edition, 1992
Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (essays and criticism) 1981
Consider the Lilies: Flowers of the Bible [with John Paterson; illustrations by Anne Ophelia Dowden] (essays and criticism) 1986
The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children (essays and criticism) 1989
Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (essays and criticism) 1995
The Invisible Child: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (essays and criticism) 2001
Katherine Paterson (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: Paterson, Katherine. "Newbery Medal Acceptance Speech." In Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1976-1985, edited by Lee Kingman, pp. 38-44. Boston, Mass.: The Horn Book, Incorporated, 1986.
[In the following transcript of her 1978 Newbery Medal acceptance speech, Paterson discusses the origins of Bridge to Terabithia and the various ways young readers interpret the ending of her novel.]
The day after my early-morning call telling me that Bridge to Terabithia had won the Newbery Medal, a scene from my childhood kept replaying itself in my head. A chubby-faced eight-year-old is telling her older brother and sister what she desperately hopes is a very funny story.
"Katherine," they ask sweetly when she finishes, "did you make that up all by yourself?"
"Yes." She nods eagerly.
"Sounded like it."
You cannot see my eight-year-old self, but I promise you, she is here tonight as I accept your honor for this funny little wounded story which I made up myself and which sounds like it. It is a marvelous thing to know that it has been heard and not despised. Thank you.
When I say I made it up all by myself, that is not really true. I know how very many people are a part of its making: Lisa Hill, from whose life and death the story sprang; my husband John, who loved it first; our children, Lin, John, David, and Mary; the Womeldorf family in which I, like Jesse Aarons, was the middle child of five; the sixth-grade class I taught, or who taught me, in rural Virginia more than twenty years ago; Virginia Buckley, my editor and my friend, along with all my fellow workers at Thomas Y. Crowell; Donna Diamond with her delicate but, at the same time, powerful illustrations. My new friends at Crowell and Harper understand that I need to say a special thanks to Ann Beneduce and Sophie Silberberg, whose love and concern not only for my work but for me has meant so much to my life.
I was told that I could make a long speech, but if I mention everyone who has helped me, we'll be in Chicago until the next blizzard. So, my loving and beloved ones, I am very grateful.
The summer our son David was three years old he fell in love with bridges. I understood just how he felt, being a lover of bridges myself, and coming home from Lake George, the whole family took delight in the bridges along the way. We were spending the night with our Long Island cousins; it was well after dark, and everyone was getting cranky by the time the last bridge was crossed.
"When is the next bridge, Mommy?" David asked.
"There aren't any more," I told him. "We're almost at Uncle Arthur's house now."
"Just one more bridge, Mommy, please, just one more bridge," he said, believing in his three-year-old heart that mothers can do anything, including instant bridge building.
"There aren't any more bridges, sweetheart, we're almost there."
He began to weep. "Please, Mommy, just one more bridge."
Nothing we said could console him. I was at my wits' end. Why couldn't he understand that I was not maliciously withholding his heart's desire—that there was no way I could conjure up a bridge and throw it in the path of our car? When would he know that I was a human being, devoid of any magic power?
It was later that night that I remembered. The next day I could give him a bridge, and not just any bridge. The next day I could give him the Verrazano Bridge. I could hardly wait.
That is the last and only time I was given credit for building the Verrazano Bridge, but it occurs to me that I have spent a good part of my life trying to construct bridges. Usually my bridges have turned out looking much more like the bridge to Terabithia, a few planks over a nearly dry gully, than like that elegant span across the Narrows. There were so many chasms I saw that needed bridging—chasms of time and culture and disparate human nature—that I began sawing and hammering at the rough wood planks for my children and for any other children who might read what I had written.
But of course I could not make a bridge for them any more than I could conjure one up that night on Long Island. I discovered gradually and not without a little pain that you don't put together a bridge for a child. You become one—you lay yourself across the chasm.
It is there in the Simon and Garfunkel song—"Like a bridge over troubled waters / I will lay me down." The waters to be crossed are not always troubled. The land on the other side of the river may be flowing with joy, not to mention milk and honey. But still the bridge that the child trusts or delights in—and in my case, the book that will take children from where they are to where they might be—needs to be made not from synthetic or inanimate objects but from the stuff of life. And a writer has no life to give but her own.
My first three novels were set in feudal Japan, but I never considered them remote from my life. I had left Japan seven years before I wrote the first of them, but in writing them, I had a chance to become almost Japanese again, and if you know me, you know that Muna and Takiko and Jiro are me as well. Yet of all the people I have ever written about, perhaps Jesse Aarons is more nearly me than any other, and in writing this book, I have thrown my body across the chasm that had most terrified me.
I have been afraid of death since I was a child—lying stiffly in the dark, my arms glued to my sides, afraid that sleep would seduce me into a land of no awakening or of wakening into judgment.
As I grew up, the fear went underground but never really went away. Then I was forty-one years old with a husband and four children whom I loved very much, my first novel published, a second soon to be and a third bubbling along, friends I cared about in a town I delighted to live in, when it was discovered that I had cancer. I could not in any justice cry "Why me?"—for no one had been given more of the true wealth of this world than I. Surely as a card-carrying member of the human race some dues must be paid.
But even though the operation was pronounced successful and the prognosis hopeful, it was a hard season for me and my family, and just when it seemed that we were all on our feet again and beginning to get on with life, our David's closest friend was struck and killed by lightning.
If the spring and summer had been hard, they were nothing compared to the fall. David went through all the classical stages of grief, inventing a few the experts have yet to catalog. In one of these he decided that since Lisa had been good, God had not killed her for her sins but as a punishment for him, David. Moreover, God would continue to punish him by killing off everyone he loved. I was second on the list, right after his sister Mary.
We listened to him and cried with him, but we could not give Lisa back to him, these mere mortals that he now knew his parents to be.
In January I went to a meeting of the Children's Book Guild of Washington at which Ann Durell of Dutton was to speak. By some chance or design, depending on your theology, I was put at the head table. In the polite amenities before lunch someone said to me: "How are the children?"—for which the answer, as we all know, is "Fine." But I botched it. Before I could stop myself I began really to tell how the children were, leading my startled tablemates deep into the story of David's grief.
No one interrupted me. But when I finally shut up, Ann Durell said very gently, "I know this sounds just like an editor, but you should write that story. Of course," she added, "the child can't die by lightning. No editor would ever believe that."
I thought I couldn't write it, that I was too close and too overwhelmed, but I began to try to write. It would be a kind of therapy for me, if not for the children. I started to write in pencil on the free pages of a used spiral notebook so that when it came to nothing I could pretend that I'd never been very serious about it.
After a few false starts, thirty-two smudged pages emerged, which made me feel that perhaps there might be a book after all. In a flush of optimism I moved to the typewriter and pounded out a few dozen more, only to find myself growing colder and colder with every page until I was totally frozen. The time had come for my fictional child to die, and I could not let it happen.
I caught up on my correspondence, I rearranged my bookshelves, I even cleaned the kitchen—anything to keep the inevitable from happening. And then one day a friend asked, as friends will, "How is the new book coming?" and I blurted out—"I'm writing a book in which a child dies, and I can't let her die. I guess," I said, "I can't face going through Lisa's death again."
"Katherine," she said, looking me in the eye, for she is a true friend, "I don't think it's Lisa's death you can't face. I think it's yours."
I went straight home to my study and closed the door. If it was my death I could not face, then by God, I would face it. I began in a kind of fever, and in a day I had written the chapter, and within a few weeks I had completed the draft, the cold sweat pouring down my arms.
It was not a finished book, and I knew it, but I went ahead and did what no real writer would ever do: I had it typed up and mailed it off to Virginia before the sweat had a chance to evaporate.
There is no span of time quite so eternal as that between the mailing of a manuscript and the reception of an editor's reply. I knew she hated it; that's why she hadn't written or called. It was weird and raw and no good, and she was trying to think of some kind way to tell me that I was through as a writer.
Finally she called. "I laughed through the first two thirds and cried through the last," she said. So it was all right. She understood, as she always has, what I was struggling to do. And although she did not know what was happening in my life, she did not break the bruised reed I had offered her but sought to help me weave it into a story, a real story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
"We need to see Leslie grow and change," she said. And suddenly, from the ancient dust of the playground at Calvin H. Wiley School, there sprang up a small army of seventh-grade Amazons led by the dreadful Pansy Something-or-Other, who had terrorized my life when I was ten and not too hard to terrify.
"You must convince us," Ann Beneduce added, "that Jesse has the mind of an artist." This seemed harder, for I certainly don't have Ann's kind of artistic vision. I started bravely, if pompously, reading the letters of Vincent Van Gogh, and when they didn't help, I went, as I often do, to my children.
"David," I asked, feeling like a spy, "why don't you ever draw pictures from nature?"
And my nine-year-old artist nature-lover replied, "I can't get the poetry of the trees." It is the only line of dialogue that I have ever consciously taken from the mouth of a living person and put into the mouth of a fictitious one. It doesn't usually work, but that time it seemed to.
I have never been happier in my life than I was those weeks I was revising the book. It was like falling happily, if a little crazily, in love. I could hardly wait to begin work in the morning and would regularly forget about lunch. The valley of the shadow which I had passed through so fearfully in the spring had, in the fall, become a hill of rejoicing.
This time when I sent the manuscript off to Virginia I said: "I know that love is blind, for I have just mailed you a flawless manuscript."
In time, of course, my vision was restored. I no longer imagine the book to be without flaws, but I have never ceased to love the people of this book—even the graceless Brenda and the inarticulate Mrs. Aarons. And, oh, May Belle, will you ever make a queen? I still mourn for Leslie, and when children ask me why she had to die, I want to weep, because it is a question for which I have no answer.
It is a strange and wonderful thing to me that other people who do not even know me love Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke. I have given away my own fear and pain and faltering faith and have been repaid a hundredfold in loving compassion from readers like you. As the prophet Hosea says, the Valley of Trouble has been turned into the Gate of Hope.
Theodore Gill has said, "The artist is the one who gives form to difficult visions." This statement comes alive for me when I pore over Peter Spier's Noah's Ark. The difficult vision is not the destruction of the world. We've had too much practice imagining that. The difficult vision which Mr. Spier has given form to is that in the midst of the destruction, as well as beyond it, there is life and humor and caring along with a lot of manure shoveling. For me those final few words "and he planted a vineyard" ring with the same joy as "he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot."
In talking with children who have read Bridge to Terabithia, I have met several who do not like the ending. They resent the fact that Jesse would build a bridge into the secret kingdom which he and Leslie had shared. The thought of May Belle following in the footsteps of Leslie is bad enough, but the hint that the thumbsucking Joyce Ann may come as well is totally abhorrent to these readers. How could I allow Jesse to build a bridge for the unworthy? they ask me. Their sense of what is fitting and right and just is offended. I hear my young critics out and do not try to argue with them, for I know as well as they do that May Belle is not Leslie, nor will she ever be. But perhaps some day they will understand Jesse's bridge as an act of grace which he built, not because of who May Belle was but because of who he himself had become crossing the gully into Terabithia. I allowed him to build the bridge because I dare to believe with the prophet Hosea that the very valley where evil and despair defeat us can become a gate of hope—if there is a bridge.
In closing, I want to explain the Japanese word on the dedication page of Bridge to Terabithia. The word is banzai, which some of you will remember from old war movies. I am very annoyed when writers throw in Italian and German phrases that I can't understand, but suddenly as I wrote the dedication to this book, banzai seemed to be the only word I knew that was appropriate. The two characters which make the word up say, "all years," but the word itself combines the meanings of our English word Hooray with the ancient salute to royalty, "Live forever!" It is a cry of triumph and joy, a word full of hope in the midst of the world's contrary evidence. It is the word I wanted to say through Bridge to Terabithia. It is a word that I think Leslie Burke would have liked. It is my salute to all of you whose lives are bridges for the young.
Joel D. Chaston (essay date winter 1991-1992)
SOURCE: Chaston, Joel D. "The Other Deaths in Bridge to Terabithia." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 16, no. 4 (winter 1991-1992): 238-41.
[In the following essay, Chaston explores the subtle textual evocations of death that occur before Leslie's passing in Bridge to Terabithia.]
In writing about Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (1977), Alleen Pace Nilsen and Kenneth L. Donelson claim that "Paterson's novel set impossibly high standards that no other such book about the death of a friend has equalled …" (236). Certainly, it has been one of the most honored children's books about death published in the last two decades. Besides the 1978 Newbery Medal, it has received the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, the Januscz Korcazk Medal, the Le Grand Prix des Jeunes Lecteurs, and the Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award.
Not surprisingly, Bridge to Terabithia now occupies a prominent position on a number of bibliographies about death. Masha Kabakow Rudman's Children's Literature: An Issues Approach (1984) discusses the novel as an example of one of many books whose "characters do not respond heroically or admirably to death" (337). It is a useful book, she implies, because it depicts child who "passes through all of the stages of mourning …" (338). In her chapter on realistic fiction in Literature and the Child (1989), Bernice Cullinan devotes most of a section called "On Death" to Bridge to Terabithia. She discusses three fifth-grade girls who feel that the novel "showed them that one could, and should get over the death of a friend and that Jess was a good model of how they might react if they were in similar circumstances" (438). John Stewig's Children and Literature (1988) also places the novel in a section on death and aging, discussing it along with books like Sharon Bell Mathis's The Hundred Penny Box (1975) and Lois Lowry's A Summer to Die (1977), works published around the same time.
Paterson, however, is bothered by the inclusion of Bridge to Terabithia on "death lists." While not en- tirely opposed to recommending a book to readers with special problems, she is wary of bibliotherapy. She writes:
The first time I was told that Bridge to Terabithia was "on our death list," I was a bit shaken up. There follows, you see, the feeling that if a child has a problem, a book that deals with that problem can be given to the child and the problem will be cured. As Jill Paton Walsh points out, only children's books are used this way. "One does not," she says, "rush to give Anna Karenina to friends who are committing adultery, or minister to distressed old age with copies of King Lear." Still, if we look at life as a series of problems needing solving, it is hard not to offer nicely packaged, portable solutions, preferably paperback. I know. No one has given out more copies of Ramona the Brave to first graders in distress than I have.
(Spying Heart 31)
Paterson goes on to address what she sees as shallowness in "problem novels" for children, arguing that the best a writer can do is to "share with children works of the imagination-those sounds deepest in the human heart, often couched in symbol and metaphor." These works, she continues, don't give children ready-made answers, but invite them "to go within themselves to listen to the sounds of their own hearts" (34-35). In other words, books like Bridge to Terabithia should not be used as a cure for or fast solution to the problems children face. It is only when literature stimulates readers to look within themselves and search their hearts for their own solutions to problems that it is effective.
A close reading of Bridge to Terabithia reveals that these same ideas are present in the novel itself. This book, which is so often featured on "death lists," can be read as an argument against attempting to solve children's problems through literature. According to the novel, stories, whether written or oral, are no substitute for real experience; no amount of literary exposure to death, for example, can prepare Jess for Leslie Burke's death. When such works help readers "listen to the sounds of their own hearts," however, they are valuable indeed. At the same time, through its allusions to other death stories, Bridge to Terabithia shows how its own treatment of the subject is distinctive, suggesting a movement towards a new kind of death literature.
Many discussions of Bridge to Terabithia have rightfully focused on Leslie Burke's death and its impact on Jess Aarons. It is, after all, at the heart of the book, which grew out of real events involving Paterson's son and one of his friends. In her "Newbery Award Acceptance," Paterson describes how her son's best friend was struck by lightning, launching her child into "all the classical stages of grief, inventing a few the experts have yet to catalogue" (364). Encouraged by Ann Durrell, an editor at Dutton, she decided to write the story, but not without feeling that she could not do it, that she was too close to it.
Somewhere along the way, however, the novel expanded beyond a simple account of Leslie's death and Jess's reaction to it. Indeed, as Paterson explains in an essay, "The Aim of the Writer Who Writes for Children," the book is not even really about death, but friendship. She goes on to argue that while "all mortal friendships come to a close, death is not always the most painful ending" (323).
Even so, death permeates the novel and, upon close analysis, Leslie's death is only one of many within the novel—the books and stories Jess and Leslie share are also concerned with death. In fact, Jess and Leslie can be seen as subjects of a type of bibliotherapy before either of them has to cope with death; their own list of death books and stories would seem to be preparing them for what eventually happens to Leslie. These works also suggest a variety of attitudes towards death. The children read and hear stories in which death is an obsession, death comes as a result of revenge, death is caused by suicide, and death is chosen to save others or to further a social, political, or religious cause. The stories they encounter do not, however, treat purposeless, accidental death, the kind that comes when least expected.
It is through his friendship with Leslie that Jess becomes acquainted with these death stories as they are creating Terabithia. Since Jess is deprived of some of the imaginative sources Leslie has to draw on, she lends him "all of her books about Narnia, so he would know how things went in a magic kingdom—how the animals and the trees must be protected and how a ruler must behave" (40). While the two children do not discuss it directly, C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, the very series which helps them create their magical kingdom, frequently portrays death. In the first book in the series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), the great lion, Aslan, sacrifices himself in order to save Edmund, who has come under the spell of the White Witch. In the final book, The Last Battle (1956), several children are killed in a railway accident, thus sending them to Narnia for the last time.
In these books, death is often both noble and temporary. For example, the grief the children feel when Aslan is sacrificed is dispelled when he returns from the dead. The children learn that there is power deeper than that of the White Witch and that she did not know that "Death itself would start working backwards" (133). In The Last Battle, Aslan explains to the dead children that death is the start of a holiday; the reader is then told that while "they all lived happily ever after," their deaths are "only the beginning of the story" (173).
That death can be noble, even wonderful, is reiterated when Leslie accompanies Jess to church on Easter Sunday. There, apparently for the first time, Leslie is introduced to the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. For her, it is "better than a movie." She explains to Jess, "It's really kind of a beautiful story—like Abraham Lincoln or Socrates—or Aslan" (84). To Jess and May Belle, the story is scary and frightening, but for Leslie, it is beautiful, despite the fact that no one has ever forced her to believe it. Both The Chronicles of Narnia and the New Testament make sacrificial death beautiful and noble. In these stories, as well as those detailing the lives of Lincoln and Socrates, death is put in a larger context.
Anthea Bell has questioned the reality of the novel's Easter episode—could a child as literate as Leslie really never have heard the full Easter story or made a connection between Jesus and Aslan? Bell goes on to say that this chapter of the novel "does not really relate much to the book either before or after the scene" (77). While it may indeed seem surprising that the precocious Leslie is unfamiliar with certain stories in the Bible, her response to this book is important because it points out that Jess has been affected differently by the same story. It is clear that readers have an important role in the effect literature has on them. They may not, for example, respond to a story about death in the same way.
Of course, these are not the only sorts of death stories that Leslie and Jess share. When they are in Terabithia, Leslie also introduces Jess to Moby Dick and Hamlet. "Say, did you ever hear the story about Moby Dick?" she asks Jess on one occasion (41). Jess, of course, has never heard of Herman Melville or of Captain Ahab's obsession with the great white whale. Leslie, however, matter-of-factly tells him "a wonderful story about a whale and a crazy sea captain who was bent on killing it." The story is powerful enough that his fingers itch to draw it. "There ought to be a way," he muses "of making the whale shimmering white against the dark water" (43).
Like The Last Battle, this novel ends with the death of nearly every major character. As is the case with Leslie Burke, they all drown. "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee," Ishmael writes in his epilogue, quoting the Book of Job (566). Death has become an obsession for Captain Ahab who is willing to destroy himself and everyone around him to kill the whale. While engaged in his final struggle with the whale, he cries out:
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale!
Unlike Aslan's sacrifice in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Ahab's death is less than heroic—it is the result of his obsession with the whale, the natural consequence of earlier events in the novel. Instead of saving those around him, his death destroys them.
It is while Jess and Leslie are planning their own revenge against Janice Avery that yet another death story captures their attention. "Jess Aarons, I'm going to kill you," Leslie says when he accuses her of having a secret love back in Arlington. When Jess responds that she can't kill a king, Leslie mentions "regicide" and then tells him about Hamlet. As she speaks, Jess mentally draws a picture of a "shadowy castle with the tortured prince pacing the parapets" (53). Once again, he hears a story full of death, including the murder of a monarch because of a desire for revenge. At the end of the play, the stage is strewn with the corpses of Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, and Laertes. Several other characters have met their deaths earlier, including Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Hamlet's father.
Like King Lear, which Paterson suggests should not be prescribed to solve the problems of the aging, Hamlet is no cure for those dealing with death. Indeed, the deaths in the play have little in common with Leslie's. While Ophelia, Hamlet's intended, drowns in a river, too, her death is the result of madness. Leslie, on the other hand, is quite sane, a good swimmer, and, as someone who loves to go down into the water, a very unlikely candidate for drowning.
Although many characters die in The Chronicles of Narnia, Moby Dick, and Hamlet, these tales do not provide Jess with much insight into death—he savors them as stories which he would like to draw or as inspiration for Terabithia; but after Leslie's death, they cannot wipe away his grief. They are not, however, his only chance to become vicariously acquainted with death. When his classmates write about their favorite hobbies, Jess, through Leslie's essay on scuba diving, feels what it is like to drown. When Mrs. Myers reads it aloud, Jess feels drawn into the water—what he hears causes him to choke and sweat, giving him the sensation of drowning.
During his visit to the Smithsonian with Miss Edmunds, Jess is affected by yet another death story, dramatized by a diorama of "Indians disguised in buffalo skins scaring a herd of buffalo into stampeding over a cliff to their death with more Indians waiting below to butcher and skin them." He feels "a frightening sense of kinship" with the display and can barely tear himself away from it (100). Both Leslie's essay and the buffalo diorama have a strong emotional impact on Jess, fascinating him, giving him a sense of the violence of death. In the end, however, like the other death stories, they do not console him after Leslie's death.
When the rope across the river breaks and Leslie falls into the water and drowns, her death is as unreal as an earlier image Jess has had of her "flattened straight out like the coyote on Road Runner," easily repaired and able to fight again another day (74). Jess's first response to Leslie's death is that his family has told him a lie. Even when he and his parents visit the Burke family, Jess finds the grief of Leslie's grandmother incomprehensible—it is "as if the lady who talked about Polident on TV had suddenly burst into tears. It didn't fit" (112).
At this point, one final story does have a sort of "therapeutic" effect on Jess. It differs sharply from Leslie's novels and the essay she has written because it validates his own experience and does not try to erase his feelings. Ironically, it is Mrs. Myers, the teacher he and Leslie have openly despised, who begins to make him feel better. "When my husband died," she explains to Jess, "people kept telling me not to cry, kept trying to make me forget" (125). She tells him, however, that she did not want to forget. Jess is surprised by the image of a loving, caring Mrs. Myers, but recognizes that she "had helped him already by understanding that he would never forget Leslie" (125). It is important to Jess that Mrs. Myers does not diminish the importance of his experience or make him deny that it has affected him.
Even though Jess has been fascinated by earlier encounters with death stories, they cannot alter what has happened to Leslie, nor can they provide the "portable solutions, preferably paperback" that Paterson cautions against (Spying Heart 31). Paterson carefully refrains from turning Jess's own story into a prepackaged set of solutions that would try to cure the problems of yet another grieving child. Yet, as Rudman has suggested, Jess does pass through typical stages of mourning such as anger, denial, and acceptance. Paterson, however, respects his personal response to Leslie's death, making it clear that Jess's grief is genuine and should not be lightly dismissed.
While Paterson suggests that the stories of Aslan and Jesus, Captain Ahab and Hamlet are powerful, even beautiful, her own book treats death differently. Leslie's death is never glorified. Unlike the works the children have read, Bridge to Terabithia does not imply that her death is noble, nor is it anyone's fault. Leslie has not been urged to stampede off a cliff nor has she brought about her own death by a desire for revenge. Her death is immediate, unalterable, and accidental. Paterson has created a book which, like Mrs. Myers' story, does not ask the reader to dismiss the pain of death or to forget about it. Instead, she asks her readers to "go within themselves to listen to the sounds of their own hearts" (Spying Heart 35).
While Paterson questions the validity of bibliotherapy, she also feels that books can provide readers with strength, sustenance, and hope. Certainly, the books Leslie shares with Jess accomplish this. But they provide no quick cure—reading needs to be a cooperative effort between the writer and the reader. In Gates of Excellence, Paterson maintains, "I have no more right to tell my readers how to respond to what I have written than they have to tell me how to write it" (24). In another essay, she writes that it is "only when the deepest sound going forth from my heart meets the deepest sound coming forth from yours—it is only in this encounter that the true music begins" (Spying Heart 37).
Paterson has written the kind of book Jess would have appreciated reading, though it is clear that it would not have provided him with pat solutions or wiped away his grief. In the end, Jess must resolve his feelings through his own actions, building a bridge into Terabithia, sharing with May Belle what he has learned from Leslie. Ultimately, the stories Jess has heard, as well as his friendship with Leslie, help him to "push back the walls of his mind and … see beyond to the shining world—huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile" (126), but it is up to him to stand up to his fears and create his own story.
Bell, Anthea. "A Case of Commitment." Signal 38 (1978): 73-81.
Cullinan, Bernice. Literature and the Child. 2nd ed. San Diego: Harcourt, 1989.
Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: Macmillan, 1956.
———. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: Macmillan, 1950.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Modern Library, 1926.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Kenneth L. Donelson. Literature for Today's Young Adults. 2nd ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1985.
Paterson, Katherine. "The Aim of the Writer Who Writes for Children." Theory in Practice 21 (1982): 323.
———. Bridge to Terabithia. New York: Crowell, 1977.
———. Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. New York: Dutton, 1981.
———. "Newbery Acceptance Speech." Horn Book 54 (1978): 361-67.
———. The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children. New York: Dutton, 1989.
Rudman, Masha Kabakow. Children's Literature: An Issues Approach. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1984.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen, 1982.
Stewig, John. Children and Literature. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton, 1988.
Gary D. Schmidt (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: Schmidt, Gary D. "Prodigal Children in Search of Hope: Bridge to Terabithia." In Katherine Paterson, pp. 54-61. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Schmidt examines Paterson's thematic message of building bridges between characters in Bridge to Terabithia, noting how the bridge metaphor allows for a growth of understanding which enables her characters to see from other perspectives.]
With Bridge to Terabithia Paterson turned to contemporary realism, and with that change came a new setting and a new sort of situation. The protagonists are younger than Paterson's previous heroes and heroines, and in some sense their situations are somewhat less desperate. Jessie Aarons faces some of the same difficulties faced by Muna and Jiro. He especially faces the need to accept himself. But whereas Muna searches for a family, Jessie must find a place for himself in a family where he does not appear to fit in. It is a complex and painful search.
Bridge to Terabithia won Paterson the 1978 Newbery Award. In her acceptance speech she focused on the notion of bridges, which are central to the book. In fact, she argued that the book might itself be a bridge "that will take children from where they are to where they might be" ("Newbery Medal Acceptance Speech," 363). The bridge metaphor functions on several levels in this speech. The novel is a bridge over the chasm of death that Paterson felt. It is a way to overcome the chasms established by "time and culture and desperate human nature." It is a bridge to the promised land, allowing "the very valley where evil and despair defeat us … [to] become a gate of hope" ("Newbery," 367). This reference to hope and crossings would, of course, be familiar to readers of her earlier novels.
Bridge to Terabithia does focus on the notion of crossings. Jess Aarons is the most visible "crosser," though not the only one. In each case the crossing involves a movement from the most mundane, expected, humdrum way of the world into a realm of grace and high courtesy and imagination. It is a crossing made by Jess and Leslie. It is a crossing promised to May Belle and perhaps to Joyce Ann. And it is a crossing offered to those who at first seem to be the least likely crossers: Jess's father and his teacher, Mrs. Myers. If these crossings define the growth of individual characters, they also define the growth of the family structures of those characters, especially as Jess's family comes to new awarenesses about their son's needs and their own willingness to show love.
The novel opens with a moment of hope for Jess: he will be the fastest runner in his school. His mother and older sisters do not find this to be even moderately interesting, though his two younger sisters do. As his father is away most of the time, Jess is responsible for many of the chores, which he does alone. In fact, he does almost everything alone.
At school, he is to be disappointed: Leslie Burke, a girl whose family has just moved into the house next door, is faster. In fact, she makes it clear that in many ways she does not know her place. She plays with the boys, she wears grubby clothes, she admits that she has no television, and she virtually insists on being his friend.
When Jess hears one of Leslie's papers read aloud, he recognizes in her the creativity and imagination that he feels but cannot express to his family. He also recognizes his growing friendship, as he tries to help her to do what he does: fit in without sticking out. Together, at first to escape from the world of their classroom, they create the kingdom of Terabithia, a land of high imagination. One can only enter by swinging across a dry creekbed.
As their friendship grows, Jess must face the questioning of his classmates and family. But Leslie has opened up the world of the imagination for him, and he is not the same insecure boy he once was. At Christmas he gives her a dog, Prince Terrian, and they rejoice in their imaginative world, in the sense that they can withdraw from the ugliness of the world around them, that they can understand life in a very different way. The bickering of Jess's older sisters, the disappointed cynicism of his father, and the stifling classroom can be put aside.
There is one teacher who can do for Jess something of what Leslie does: Miss Edmunds. When, on a rainy Saturday, she offers to take Jess to an art exhibit, he agrees gladly. When he returns, however, he finds his family waiting: Leslie has drowned in the swollen creek while trying to cross the gully into Terabithia. Stricken, Jess runs away. His father follows, and in a moment of unexpected grace and newfound love, he picks Jess up and carries him back to the pickup and their home. He cannot yet find the right words to connect with Jess, but he has found the right actions.
Jess is numb. His family cannot seem to understand his reaction, though they are gentle to him. He endures the funeral, the sympathies of his teacher, and the departure of Leslie's family. Even Prince Terrien will be gone. But Jess has grown, and he has taken on the imaginative capacities of Leslie. He, too, will become a bridge. He builds a crude crossing over the gully, and, when his younger sister May Belle comes to see, he brings her across into Terabithia—a land of milk and honey—and introduces her to a world ever so much more real: "And when he had finished, he put flowers in her hair and led her across the bridge—the great bridge into Terabithia—which might look to someone with no magic in him like a few planks across a nearly dry gully."1
It is a moment of consummate grace, a moment echoed in the conclusions of Come Sing, Jimmy Jo, Park's Quest, and The Great Gilly Hopkins. Jess has grown from a rather shy and somewhat lonely child with no close friends to a giver of grace. He is a boy placed in a stultifying school environment where the best strategy—a strategy Jimmy Jo uses—is to remain unobtrusive and unobserved. This is true with regard to both the teachers and other students. When at the opening of the novel Jess is convinced that he will be the fastest runner, he holds back from taking the lead in organizing the races and lets others sort things out. When he is caught drawing in class, his response is one of almost despair: "Jess's face was burning hot. He slid the notebook paper back under his desk top and put his head down. A whole year of this. Eight more years of this. He wasn't sure he could stand it" (23). In fact, there is almost no relief for Jess, except perhaps in the adoration of his younger sisters.
This is what makes his attack on Janice Avery so extraordinary. This retiring kid who is so anxious not to be noticed slights Janice in order to protect Leslie, thus calling himself to the attention of the school's bully. It is an instinctive response to protect his new friend. His growth has begun, but just begun. As he grows closer to Leslie, he grows in understanding of the demands of friendship. Eventually he and Leslie will be the ones who minister to a lonely Janice; they find her to be more needy, less self-assured and independent than they imagined. Their ministry—an act almost unthinkable at the beginning of the novel—is perhaps not totally unexpected; Jess's kindness to his somewhat ignored younger sister suggests this quality, but it takes Leslie to help him to respond in this way on the level of his peers.
At the conclusion of the novel Jess is no longer trying to set himself apart, either through averting his eyes from others' gazes or through establishing himself as his class's fastest runner. He is instead building bridges, making a way for others to participate in the imaginative world of Terabithia. This is the legacy of Leslie's friendship.
Leslie Burke is in one essential way precisely the opposite of Jess. Where he is inherently fearful and inward, burying his imaginative exploits, hiding his art, Leslie is outward-looking (though not extroverted), celebrating her imagination. She has an ambiguous relationship with these traits, at once a bit shy and discomforted by the way she appears to others and yet anxious to accentuate the distinctions. She is hurt by her classmates' disparaging rejection of her, yet she is completely aware of the differences responsible for her isolation. She innocently announces that her family has no television, she dresses quite differently (and by choice), and she almost naively shows herself to be the dominant runner, thus alienating herself from all the boys in the class. In fact, all of her classmates see her as intruding into spheres where she does not belong.
But Leslie is a girl with an imaginative vision; it is something Jess soon recognizes about her. She introduces the idea of Terabithia, and when she speaks, "the words rolling out so regally, you knew she was a proper queen" (40). When Jess tries to draw a picture of Terabithia, Leslie responds out of her own imaginative vision: "How could he explain it in a way Leslie would understand, how he yearned to reach out and capture the quivering life about him and how when he tried, it slipped past his fingertips, leaving a dry fossil upon the page? ‘I just can't get the poetry of the trees,’ he said" (40). His line suggests his own somewhat buried imaginative vision, and Leslie's response is telling: "Don't worry…. You will someday" (40). It is a moment of grace. It is perhaps the first real encouragement he has ever received. It is certainly the first encouragement he has ever received from a peer.
In fact, Leslie herself is the imaginative bridge into Terabithia. Jess fears the swing across the gully, but even more he fears the swing across into the place of imagination. It is not something his father would understand or approve of, nor would his teacher, Mrs. Myers. Leslie does more than establish an imaginary kingdom with Jess; she helps him to establish a whole way of looking at things: "For hadn't Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world—huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile? … It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength" (126). And this is precisely what he does, as grace and the imaginative version merge, as he sets planks over a gully, and as he brings May Belle into a new land.
Jess and Leslie are not the only bridges in the novel. Certainly Miss Edmunds plays this role. She, like Leslie, is attuned to the artistic vision, and her music lifts Jess out of the strangling world. She tells him to keep drawing, and on one elementary level he draws for her. She is also the one who brings him to the Washington, D.C., art gallery, a place that strikes Jess as sacred: "He was drunk with color and form and hugeness" (100). She, like Leslie, pushes back the limits of possibilities.
There are also two unlikely bridges. Mrs. Myers, Jess comes to realize, is not just one element in a stultifying world. "Let's try to help each other, shall we?" (125), she asks Jess after Leslie's death. And in fact she does help him, for she recognizes that Jess will always remember Leslie. Perhaps she is the first—though not the only—adult who recognizes this.
The second unlikely bridge is Jess's father. Throughout the novel Jess is merely assumed by his father. Caught up in his own work, and then the lack thereof, he ignores Jess, provides no connection, never touches him; he forces Jess to hide what is most important to him. After Leslie's death, however, it is his father who comes after him in the truck and who picks him up—the first time he has touched him in the novel—"as though he were a baby" (104). Donna Diamond's illustration of this moment pictures them against Terabithian trees, and it is exactly right, for a connection has been made. It is an awkward connection: Jess's father does not know what to say. But it is a connection nonetheless.
It is his father who gently and with love brings Jess to the wake for Leslie's family. It is his father who gently keeps May Belle from intruding. It is his father who sits down with Jess after he has pitched Leslie's paints into the stream. "That was a damn fool thing to do," he says, but not with anger. He understands Jess's anger and grief. He pulls him onto his lap and soothes him, stroking his hair. "Hell, ain't it," he says to Jess, and Jess suddenly realizes the connection: "It was the kind of things Jess could hear his father saying to another man. He found it strangely comforting, and it made him bold" (116). A bridge has been built. And perhaps it is stronger than either of them realize at the time. After all, it is his paints and paper that Jess's father says should not have been thrown away. It is as though he is willing to affirm Jess's gifts.
This is an enormous change; in a sense, Jess has been a bridge for his father as well, a father who had earlier denigrated Jess's desire to draw. Now, however, there are connections between them. It had been a scattered family, with few connections. Jess's two older sisters whine their way into laziness; Jess's mother and father are too worn out to show much concern. May Belle and Joyce Ann are too young to be real companions for Jess. Jess himself is the only one who tries to make connections between some of these isolated units; in the end, some bridges are indeed built, though gullies remain.
Leslie's family, in contrast, seems much closer. They are not under the same financial pressures as Jess's, and, at least partially because of that, they are not ground down by constant worry. They explore things that would never occur to Jess's family to explore—music and art. For Jess's family, these things are extraneous and impractical. For Leslie's, they are some of the dearest parts of life. Jess responds somewhat sheepishly to this; he cannot bring himself to see these interests as quite normal.
What brings these families together for the first and only time is one of the most elemental parts of life: death. This is a mutual grief that is almost startling. Jess's father's constant reference to the "little girl" that God would never doom to hell suggests how he sees Jess—as a young child. Jess's family has feared that he too, had drowned, and he is given back to them as a gift beyond price—as, indeed, all children are.
Jess has grown in the novel: we start in a muddy field among lazy cows and end in Terabithia. Jess has had his imaginative vision affirmed. He has been introduced to whole new worlds of imaginative possibilities. He has seen the union of the imagination with grace. He started out wanting to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade (a goal he achieves); he ends up something so much more.
There is a strong suggestion in Bridge to Terabithia —stronger than in Paterson's earlier historical fiction—that there are stories yet untold here. There are Leslie's parents who reject social expectations. There is Jess's father who has buried sensitivity and love until death digs it up. There is May Belle who yearns for love. There is Janice Avery who bullies others to hide her pain. And Mrs. Myers who cries at the loss of her student. Readers see the story from a single, limited perspective; other perspectives, though they will impinge on the story's primary perspective, remain largely hidden and unknowable. This is what Jess learns when he befriends Janice Avery. Perhaps part of Jess's growth is his ability to see those other perspectives and to build bridges based on those new understandings.
1. Bridge to Terabithia (New York: HarperCollins, 1977), 128; hereafter cited in text.
Pat R. Scales (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Scales, Pat R. "Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson." In Teaching Banned Books: 12 Guides for Young Readers, pp. 75-8. Chicago, Ill.: American Library Association, 2001.
[In the following essay, Scales characterizes Bridge to Terabithia as a young adult novel that demonstrates the power of fantasy and hope in a child's life.]
It was up to him [Jess] to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.
—Bridge to Terabithia
Jess Aarons is striving to be the fastest runner in fifth grade at Lark Creek Elementary School. He won the race in fourth grade and became a hero for one day. Jess, an excellent artist, isn't considered a serious athlete; he is just a weird kid who can draw. But, he has not forgotten that sweet taste of winning, and he aims to do it again. Each morning he sprints across the pastures and meadowlands of his family's small farm in rural Virginia, pushing himself harder and harder so that he will be ready on the day of the big race. Then, maybe his father will be proud of him.
The truth is that Jess's father, who works in D.C., has little time to think about his son. He comes home each evening tired from the long commute and expects Jess to have completed all the chores on the farm. Jess's sisters help out around the house, but there are times that Jess feels the burden of being the only son. He craves time to himself, and wishes for a quiet place where he can draw and think. His father disapproves of his art so Jess has no one with whom he can share his drawings except Miss Edmunds, his music teacher. Then, Leslie Burke comes into his life.
Jess meets Leslie for the first time on the day her family moves into the old Perkins place next to his family's farm. There is something different about her, and the kids at school don't take long to notice. The first day of school is the day of the big race, and Leslie shows up to run. No girl has ever raced the boys. "Maybe if he didn't look at her, she would go back to the upper field where she belonged." Does Leslie know that she doesn't belong in the race with the boys? Does she care? Leslie's self-confidence surprises Jess, and the two are in the final race for the championship. "She beat him. She came in first and turned her large shining eyes on a bunch of dumb sweating-mad faces." Jess is humiliated before all the guys at Lark Creek, but he can't help but notice Le- slie when she gets off the bus and runs toward the Perkins place. "She ran as though it was her nature. It reminded him of the flight of wild ducks in the autumn. So smooth. The word ‘beautiful’ came to his mind, but he shook it away and hurried up toward the house."
Jess finally realizes that he will never be the best runner, but something worth more than a championship happens that changes his life. He and Leslie become friends, and the two find a secret hiding place across the creek from their adjoining homes where they create an imaginary kingdom they call Terabithia. "For the first time in his life he got up every morning with something to look forward to. Leslie was more than his friend. She was his other, more exciting self—his way to Terabithia and the worlds beyond." But, Terabithia had to be their secret because if others knew, the magic would be lost forever.
A bit of the magic is lost for Jess when he returns from a museum trip to Washington with Miss Edmunds and finds that Leslie is dead. The rains had caused the creek to swell, and Leslie, in an effort to get to Terabithia, had fallen and hit her head, drowning in the rushing waters. Unable to accept the news of Leslie's death, Jess takes off running. His father, following him in the pickup truck, overtakes Jess and lifts him into his arms, holding him like a baby. At school, Jess is paralyzed with sadness, but Mrs. Myers, his teacher, understands his grief. "He thought about it all day, how before Leslie came, he had been a nothing—a stupid, weird little kid who drew funny pictures and chased around a cow field trying to act big—trying to hide a whole mob of foolish little fears running riot inside his gut."
Jess makes a final trip to Terabithia alone. This time, he makes a wreath of wildflowers and places it on the "carpet of golden needles" in Leslie's memory. "Father, into Thy hands I commend her spirit." But, there is one more gesture that he must complete. He builds a bridge to Terabithia and carefully leads May Belle, his little sister, across the bridge to the magical kingdom that Leslie helped to create. There, he crowns May Belle Queen of Terabithia. Leslie would be pleased.
Katherine Paterson speaks to her readers because she has a genuine and honest understanding of the realities of life, and she recognizes the importance of fantasy in everyone's world. She tells Bridge to Terabithia with compassion, communicating an almost personal relationship with Jess and Leslie. Through the friendship of Jess and Leslie, Katherine Paterson offers vision and beauty to young readers, and promises hope no matter how difficult life may be.
Karen Hirsch (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Hirsch, Karen. "Bridge to Terabithia: Too Good to Miss." In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000, edited Nicholas J. Karolides, pp. 100-06. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.
[In the following essay, Hirsch rejects censors' objections to Bridge to Terabithia—particularly their opposition to the text's occasional curse words and reliance on fantasy—suggesting that the novel's strong thematic values and sense of morality overpower such complaints.]
One day while meeting a writing group of fourth- and fifth-grade gifted students, I asked the children what their favorite books were. Many responded with Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson.
"What do you like about Bridge to Terabithia ?" I asked. Their answers captured some of the central themes of the book.
"It's so sad," one girl said. "It's the saddest book I ever read. I loved it."
"The boy and girl get to be friends," said another student. "Even though that's sort of weird. But I like it that they're friends."
"I liked that one nice teacher," said another boy. "The way she took Jesse to the city and all." The girl who started the discussion spoke up again.
"But that's when Leslie died," she said, and shivered. "Oh, think how terrible it was for her parents."
"And remember, they moved then," added a boy. "Jesse must've felt awful."
"You know what?" a fifth-grade girl said. "When I read a wonderful book like Bridge to Terabithia and then I see the book again, like in the library or on somebody's desk, you know what?" I waited, not speaking.
"I just wish I hadn't read it yet so I could read it," she ended in a burst. Some of the others nodded.
We went on then to discuss how Katherine Paterson and others of their favorite authors write and how we might improve our own writing. But I continued to think about the comment of the fifth grader. I under- stood what she meant. I often look longingly at a book, wishing I had not yet read it. Sometimes, as I did this week with Bridge to Terabithia, I reread it. Because I was familiar with this story I savored it in a new way, anticipating each event and noticing details I had missed. And because I'm a writer of juvenile fiction myself, I studied and admired the way Paterson developed her characters, built tension, and used language.
I find Bridge to Terabithia an exquisite book. A Newbery Award-winner, (1978) it tells the story of the friendship between two fifth-grade children, Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke. Jesse, a native rural Virginian, comes from a large and very poor family. Wedged between two older and two younger sisters, Jesse feels frustrated at his parents' expectations of him and by their absence of affectionate gestures. In an effort to gain recognition and admiration, both with his family and with his classmates, Jesse works hard to become the top runner in his class. Though he practices diligently to beat the current lead-runner, a new student's racing skills beat everyone. Her name is Leslie Burke.
Like Jesse, Leslie is a lonely, needy child. Busy with their book-writing endeavors and with their interest in country living, Leslie's parents tend to ignore her need for love and attention. Unlike Jesse, Leslie's family is financially secure and, though living like "hippies," is in a socioeconomic group very different from Jesse's.
Jesse and Leslie are both gifted young people, not unlike the students I teach. These characters and my students share the same kind of curiosity and intensity of very bright people, Jesse in the visual arts and Leslie in writing and in general intellectual ability. Because they live at neighboring farms and because they share a perspective on life that is different from the other kids, Jesse and Leslie become close friends. They spend time together at a woodsy hideout they call Terabithia. To get to their hideout they swing across a dry creek bed from a rope attached to an apple tree.
There, in Terabithia, under Leslie's leadership, they create a richly developed kingdom where they are King and Queen. There they talk endlessly, imagining together and encouraging each other. Sometimes they plot revenge against the school bullies, and other times Leslie tells Jesse Shakespearean stories. Terabithia becomes a second home for them, a safe, secret place for the surrogate family they've become to each other. Their relationship deepens and, though boy-girl friendships are scorned, and certainly rare in my years of elementary teaching experience, Jesse and Leslie are able to openly be friends, even at school.
When a terrible accidental drowning takes Leslie's life, Jesse is shocked and devastated. His profound grief expresses itself though disbelief, rage, and distracted action. He finally accepts Leslie's death through help from her parents and his own, his fifth-grade teacher, and his little sister. The book ends with Jesse's awareness that, although Leslie has died, she has left behind much of her spirit, energy, and optimism with him. As readers, we feel assured that Jesse will carry on, and that Leslie's life will continue through him.
This book is ideal as a classroom novel for late elementary or early middle school students. I have spoken to several teachers of fourth and fifth graders who find it enormously successful. The issues it raises are meaningful and engaging to this age: friendships, families, school, peer groups, and death. Discussions, dramatizations, and writing are only a few activities that a teacher might use to help students explore these issues and the overriding theme of "building bridges" in one's life. Any child who reads this award-winning book would necessarily experience personal growth as he/she identifies with Jesse and Leslie, particularly if offered the framework of a classroom unit to encourage personal reflection and deeper thinking.
The Newbery Award is given once a year to "the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." I read the winners each year and I encourage my students to try them, too. They are inevitably well written and deep, and I read them with admiration, respect, and pangs of envy. Among other definitions, the book must "display respect for children's understandings, abilities, and appreciations." By "distinguished" the Newbery organization means:
- marked by eminence and distinction: noted for significant achievement
- marked by excellence in quality
- individually distinct
It's easy to see how Bridge to Terabithia was chosen.
Horn Book Magazine reviewed the book in the year of its publication, 1978. Their review says that the characters in Bridge to Terabithia are magnificent. It also says that the book is rich in descriptive language, humorous insight on the cultures of different classes, and realistic portrayals of country school life. The review praises the theme of building bridges as a particularly powerful symbol in the story.
Since its publication, Bridge to Terabithia has been the target of several censorship challenges. The concerns raised have been about:
• Language: Challengers in Nebraska, Connecticut, California, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Maine have objected to what they call profanity, vulgar language, offensive language, or swear words. In the Oskaloosa, Kansas, school district a challenge "led to the enactment of a new policy that requires teachers to examine their required material for profanities. Teachers will list each profanity and the number of times it was used in the book, and forward the list to parents, who will be asked to give written permission of their children to read the material."
• Life views or lifestyles: Challenges in Connecticut and Pennsylvania have said that the book would "give students negative views of life," "make reference to witchcraft," show "disrespect of adults," and promote an "elaborate fantasy world that they felt might lead to confusion."
The dominant themes of this book are about learning to know oneself, friendship, and healthy growing up. Jesse and Leslie learn about life from each other, broaden their horizons, and come to appreciate perspectives new to them. Each child offers support to the other and each grows, giving the reader a powerful model of what friendship is. When Jesse gets in trouble over a problem with the school bully, Leslie insists that he stand up for his rights.
"It's the principle of the thing, Jess," she says. "That's what you've got to understand. You have to stop people like that. Otherwise they turn into tyrants and dictators." This is new information to the country boy Jesse. But Leslie, and sometimes her family, learn from him, too. Leslie's father, though very intelligent, doesn't have some of the practical knowledge that Jesse has. One time Jesse helps Leslie and Mr. Burke tear out old boards to uncover an ancient fireplace in the Burkes' house. Jessie demonstrates his knowledge of using tools, removing wallpaper, and patching drywall. Mr. Burke looks at him in wonder. "You're amazing," he says. "Where did you learn that, Jess?" And Jesse glows and grows in the praise and respect.
Though my writing-class students didn't articulate specific examples in our discussion of Bridge to Terabithia, they seemed to understand the importance of Jesse's and Leslie's friendship, also.
"They were such good friends," one boy said wistfully.
"And they didn't pick on each other all the time," said a girl, "the way my best friend always does to me." Teachers who use the novel in fifth grade have told me of the extended, meaningful discussions their students have had during their unit on Bridge to Terabithia. Children identify with the characters because Jesse and Leslie are searchers and seekers like all youngsters as they reach for acceptance and maturity in the world. Jesse and Leslie make mistakes, they think and say nasty things sometimes, and they "try out" a variety of experiments to test life.
These children are real and believable people, as are their families, peers, and teachers. The language the characters use is authentic to the setting and to the characters that Paterson creates. They are complex people, and Paterson shows us that in the way the characters behave. Jesse's parents are having financial difficulties, and his dad has to drive a long way in his old truck to get to a backbreaking manual labor job. But things weren't always like that for the Aaronses, and Jesse has a clear memory of those times.
In one early scene, Jesse is practicing his running, pumping hard and imagining how proud his dad would be of him if he could be the fastest runner in his school. Here are his thoughts:
Maybe Dad would be so proud he'd forget all about how tired he was from the long drive back and forth to Washington and the digging and hauling all day. He would get right down on the floor and wrestle, the way they used to. Old Dad would be surprised at how strong he'd gotten in the last couple of years.
Mr. Aarons ignores Jesse at times or uses language that some may find objectionable. When Jesse, filled with rage and frustration after Leslie's death, throws his paints and paper into water, his dad says, "That was a damn fool thing to do." But not a minute later, his father takes Jesse onto his lap and holds and strokes him with deep tenderness as Jesse cries. "I hate her," Jesse says of his friend. "I wish I'd never seen her in my whole life." And after a long pause, Dad sympathizes, "Hell ain't it?" and continues to hold his grieving son.
These examples of point and counterpoint help the reader know Mr. Aarons for the real person he is. Though a gruff, bitter, resentful man in parts of the story, he frankly and genuinely tells Jesse he's sorry about Leslie, and in his own silent way, he shows his love for his son by doing Jesse's milking chores unasked. He picks Jesse up and carries him, holding him close with tenderness even as Jesse kicks and screams out his anger and grief.
And Leslie's family is complex, too, neither all good nor all bad, but real and believable. It's true that they sometimes ignore her as they pursue their own dreams and fantasies. But they give Leslie a great deal, too. The Burke family seems like several professional families I've known. They so clearly believe in Leslie, in her abilities, in her decision-making skills, and in her high-level thinking. They don't hem her in by some contrived standards of what girls can or cannot do. Leslie scuba dives though their teacher, Mrs. Myers, says that it's "an unusual hobby—for a girl." Leslie has clearly been respected and highly regarded by her parents. She talks about why her family has moved to the country in a way that suggests that she was in on the discussion. When Jesse asks her why she's moved to the country, she says,
"My parents are reassessing their value structure."
"Huh?" says Jesse. And Leslie goes on:
"They decided they were too hooked on money and success, so they bought that old farm and they're going to farm it and think about what's important."
When Jesse objects, she says, "We talked it over. I wanted to come, too" (32).
And the Burkes' grieving when Leslie dies is a measure of how deeply they loved her. One poignant scene is when Leslie's father holds Jesse close. Sobbing and shaking, he tells Jesse, "She loved you, you know." Mr. Burke shows Jesse his grief again when he tries to give Leslie's puppy, a gift from Jesse, to him and can't because the puppy is a connection to his daughter that he can't sever. "‘I meant to give you P. T.,’ he said. ‘But’—he looked at Jesse and his eyes were those of a pleading little boy—‘but I can't seem to give him up’" (127).
Thus, although Bridge to Terabithia does have in it the "profanity, vulgar language, and swear words" that some censors offer as reasons to ban, the complex characters and moving story by far transcend the fact that children see those words in print. Even Jesse uses profanity. One time when rain made their excursions to Terabithia miserable and nearly impossible, Leslie makes a fancy speech: "Methinks some evil being has put a curse on our beloved kingdom." Jesse blurts out a baser reasoning: "Damn weather bureau," he says, using language he's bound to have heard every day of his life at home. But one misses the whole person if one defines and dismisses Jesse and his father by their language alone, as the censors are doing.
During Jesse's crisis, Mr. Aarons rises to another stature that is also within him. When Jesse's older sister, Ellie, states what might be the usual "rule" of the culture, "Boys ain't supposed to cry at times like this. Are they, Momma?" (108), both Jesse's father and mother move quickly to squelch her and protect Jesse in his time of pain.
Connecticut and Pennsylvania may have banned Bridge to Terabithia because of "disrespect of adults," or "elaborate fantasy." But in real life, which Bridge to Terabithia reflects, kids are occasionally rude in their talk about adults. Many times I've heard my professor husband talk about one of the nuns in his elementary school whom he particularly disliked. "Sister Banana Nose," he calls her. "Sister Banana Nose could really snap that ruler," he says. "We were all scared of her."
I like the way Katherine Paterson lets us see Jesse as he begins to form a new perspective on his teacher, "Monster Mouth Myers," when she shares a personal life story with him near the end of the story. So, contrary to the Connecticut and Pennsylvania censors, Bridge to Terabithia 's more powerful impression is that of Jesse's growth from a kid making fun of his teacher to one who finds a new respect and understanding of another person. Maybe if my husband had gotten to know Sister Banana Nose as a person, he would've felt more compassion for her, too, as Jesse did for Monster Mouth Myers.
As for the "elaborate fantasy" disapproval, any adult who has even the tiniest awareness of what children are like will dismiss it without defense. Who could watch children play without seeing the pleasure they take in creating fantasy—the more "elaborate" the better.
The following excerpt from a recent Internet interview with Katherine Paterson ties the issues together and gives us the unique view of Bridge to Terabithia from the author's perspective. It is, I think, a good way to end and as convincing a reason as any why this book is worth reading. In the interview, Paterson is asked why she uses swear words in the book. She says:
Jess and his father talk like the people I knew who lived in that area. I believe it is my responsibility to create characters who are real, not models of good behavior. If Jesse and his dad are to be real, they must speak and act like real people. I have a lot of respect for my readers. I do not expect them to imitate my characters, but simply to care about them and understand them.
I feel strongly that no child should miss the opportunity to read Bridge to Terabithia, either independently or in a shared inquiry class setting. This is the kind of profoundly moving and deeply meaningful book that will live in a reader's memory.
Doyle, Robert P. Banned Books; 2000 Resource Book. Chicago: American Library Association, 2000.
Horn Book Magazine 54 (Feb. 1978): 48.
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1977.
Elizabeth Raum (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Raum, Elizabeth. "Lost Garden: Glimpses of Eden in the Poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins and Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved." In Bridges for the Young: The Fiction of Katherine Paterson, edited by M. Sarah Smedman and Joel D. Chaston, pp. 137-57. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003.
[In the following essay, Raum contrasts the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins with Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved in order to examine the Christian thematic parallels between the texts.]
Nature, in all its glory, is a key element in the novels of Katherine Paterson. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Paterson uses lyrical language to awaken our sleeping senses to the beauty of the world around us. Like Hopkins, Paterson sees in nature the creative power of God. Katherine Paterson speaks eloquently of Eden as "the metaphor for the universe in perfect harmony" and goes on to say that after the fall, Eden was lost forever and "we have been homesick for Eden ever since" (Spying Heart 112). In Who Am I? (1992), Paterson asks, "If God is loving and God is powerful, why is there so much pain and evil in the world? (9). She answers with an allusion to her novel The Master Puppeteer when she says, "God did not want puppets; God wanted sons and daughters who would love and serve God freely and gladly…. People are free to love and help one another. But there is also the chance that they will hate and hurt each other" (10). Because Paterson does not create puppet characters, her characters struggle to discover who they are, to make decisions about how to live and how to treat others. Through her fictional characters, Paterson gives readers a glimpse of the lost garden, a garden which is no longer an undiluted paradise, but too often a world of pain and evil. There are no safe places in a fallen world, but there is the God-given freedom to decide whether to love and protect others or to hate and hurt them. Paterson's characters, like us all, must decide how to deal with life in the lost garden.
Writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Katherine Paterson see past the weary, sin-filled world to Eden and give readers a glimpse of the lost garden and a sense of wonder at God's creation.
Writing from a Religious Perspective
As Christian writers Katherine Paterson and Gerard Manley Hopkins believe not only in the initial creative force of God but in God's continuing power to renew both the natural world and the creatures who inhabit it. In her self-revelatory book of essays, The Spying Heart (1989), Paterson declares, "When I write with the eyes of hope, it is not my own ability to believe that I am writing about but the biblical affirmation that God is faithful—justice and righteousness will prevail" (47). She goes on to name Hopkins as one of her "spiritual fathers" and to quote from one of his poems, "God's Grandeur."
It is the belief that God has not abandoned the world that illuminates the work of both Paterson and Hopkins and that serves to tie their works together in fascinating and thought-provoking ways. Both are religious writers whose writing achieves universality. Hopkins draws on Jesuit spirituality and the writings of the medieval theologian Duns Scotus while Paterson, a Presbyterian, credits a "strong biblical heritage" interpreted by "Calvin, Knox, and the Westminster divines" for her spiritual development (Spying Heart 46).1 Paterson writes, "… if the Bible told me who I was, my Presbyterian tradition told me why I was." As an example, she writes that she learned the answer to the first question in the Westminster catechism before she learned to read (Spying Heart 46). That answer, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever," resounds in the writing of both Hopkins and Paterson.
In "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" Hopkins writes:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying, What I do is me: for that I came.
These lines reflect Hopkins's understanding that the purpose of nature and of humankind is to glorify God. By being itself, ("myself it speaks and spells") each creature fully represents the power and majesty of God ("What I do is me, for that I came"). In the words of W. H. Gardner, a prominent Hopkins scholar, "Religion, for [Hopkins], was the total reaction of the whole man to the whole of life. Man was created to serve and praise God" (xxxv).
Like Hopkins's poetry, Paterson's novels resonate with a passion for creation and for God's redeeming grace. In speaking about her novel The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978), Paterson notes that it was only after the book was published that she realized that Gilly's last name was derived from that of Gerard Manley Hopkins. She writes that "Gerard Manley, like his namesake, Gilly, lives in the deepest places of my soul" (Spying Heart 26). At times the parallels between Hopkins's poetry and Paterson's prose are unmistakable. At other times, the thematic similarities are hidden by form and substance, but exist nonetheless.
An initial look at the place of nature in Paterson's novels reveals her use of metaphor and vivid sensory images to paint a word picture of a grove of trees, an island, or a hilly pasture. However, Paterson does more than paint pretty pictures. She gives readers a glimpse of the first garden and the creative force behind it. God's garden was not complete without humankind. Neither is Paterson's. She peoples her garden with "poor on'ry people like you and like I" who often blame God for their sorrows (Niles). Paterson's novels, particularly, but not exclusively, The Bridge to Terabithia (1977) and Jacob Have I Loved (1980), contain essential elements of the Christian story of creation, fall, and redemption, a story told and retold in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The Return to Eden
Both Hopkins and Paterson celebrate the natural beauty of this world as reflective of God's creative nature. According to Genesis 1:31, on the sixth day, "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good." Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote in "God's Grandeur" that:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Hopkins's power verbs ("charged," "flame out," "gathers") praise God's initial creative act. Paterson was so moved by Hopkins's words in "God's Grandeur" that she refers to the poem in her short essay, "Dog Day Wonder" when describing a summer afternoon spent with her children watching a cicada emerge from its cocoon. She writes, "As I let the wonder wash over me I realized that this was the gift I really wanted to give my children, for what good are straight teeth and trumpet lessons to a person who cannot see the grandeur that the world is charged with?" (20)
In her writing, Paterson chooses precise language filled with delicate detail, as well as metaphor, to convey a sense of wonder. She not only reveals the wonder of each of the natural settings in her novels, but develops a unique relationship between her protagonists and their natural surroundings. In her essay "Where Is Terabithia?", Paterson writes, "It is vital that the place in which the story takes place be a true one. Because the place will shape the story, just as place shapes lives in the actual world" (226).
Paterson admits that "Terabithia is the most obvious return to Eden in my books" (Spying Heart 112). While Hopkins speaks through the persona of a worshipful servant of the Lord, Paterson speaks through her adolescent characters. Jesse Aarons, the protagonist of Bridge to Terabithia, is a country child living in rural Maryland. He runs free in the fields and forests around his home, helps with farm chores, and finds peace in the creative act of drawing. Paterson writes, "Jess drew the way some people drink whiskey" (Bridge to Terabithia 10). Like all artists, Jesse describes his world creatively. On first seeing Leslie Burke run, he is reminded "of the flight of wild ducks in autumn. So smooth" (28). The ease with which he thinks metaphorically shows Jesse's imaginative tendencies and his close connection to the natural world. Together, Jesse and Leslie explore the countryside; finding a rope dangling from "an old crab apple tree," they swing across the gully (38). Ever imaginative, Jess "leaned back and drank in the rich, clear color of the sky. He was drifting, drifting like a fat white lazy cloud back and forth across the blue." Leslie is not satisfied with simply swinging; she suggests that they need something more, but "intoxicated as he was with the heavens, [Jesse] couldn't imagine needing anything on earth" (38). Jesse revels in the sky's blueness with the same sense of joy that Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses in his poem "Spring":
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness …
While Jesse feels the richness of the blue and would be happy remaining at the crab apple tree, Leslie urges him to continue on until they reach a place that satisfies her need for a secret country where she can serve as ruler. Paterson describes that "country" as a place "where the dogwood and redbud played hide and seek between the oaks and evergreens, and the sun flung itself in golden streams through the trees to splash warmly at their feet" (Bridge to Terabithia 30). The children name their magic kingdom Terabithia and create a makeshift castle from scraps. When they are finished, Paterson writes, "Like God in the Bible, they looked at what they had made and found it was very good" (40). While the reference to Genesis is clear, the recognition that Eden is gone forever hides in Paterson's use of the words "streams" and "splash" in her initial description of Terabithia. Readers learn later that Leslie dies after she splashes into the stream that separates Terabithia from the rest of the world. For a short while, at least, Terabithia is a paradise for the two children. In the apparent safety of Terabithia, they have no enemies and everything is possible.
Leslie takes control and rules Terabithia with confidence. The pine forest which lies just beyond the castle stronghold takes on magic powers for Leslie, and she declares it sacred. "Even the rulers of Terabithia come into it only at times of greatest sorrow or of greatest joy" (47). There are celebrations—the defeat of Janice Avery, who has bullied Jesse's little sister, May Belle, and Jesse's Christmas gift to Leslie of the puppy she named Prince Terrien—and sorrows—Leslie's preoccupation with helping her father, which causes a temporary rift in the friendship, and, finally, Leslie's death.
The children's time in paradise is short, one brief spring-like season. In "Spring" Hopkins writes that the cause of his spring rejoicing is based in the memory of
A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning
The clouds are gathering for Jesse and Leslie as they did in that first Eden. Jesse lives after Eden, after the fall, and his world is "sour with sinning," or as Paterson writes, "The deed has been done—not only in that mythical Paradise but throughout human history" (Spying Heart 113). There is no more Eden, no safe place, despite what we might want.
Sue Misheff, in her essay, "Beneath the Web and Over the Stream: The Search for Safe Places in Charlotte's Web and Bridge to Terabithia, " sees Leslie Burke as Jesse's "savior." According to Misheff, "Leslie creates a safe place for Jess and herself from her imaginative powers" (133). However, Jesse's own imaginative powers are significant, and, unlike Leslie, he sees more clearly than Leslie both the glory and power of the natural world. When Leslie suggests that Jesse draw a picture of Terabithia, he responds, "I just can't get the poetry of the trees" (40). It is as if his own powers are too puny to compete with God's creation. It is Jesse whose heart beat faster the closer he came to Terabithia (46) and who feels that "his life is as delicate as a dandelion" (77). Even before they find Terabithia, Jesse is aware of the "dark places where it was almost like being under water" (Bridge to Terabithia 39). Jesse's fear is well-founded and foreshadows Leslie's underwater death. There are no safe places in this fallen world.
Between the children's exultation in Terabithia and Leslie's death, there is Easter. When Jesse tells Leslie that his family will be attending church for Easter service, she responds, "I was thinking I'd like to go" (80). She admits that she's never been to church, and while Jesse indicates that he goes to church only on Easter, he has more than a passing knowledge of the Bible and admits that "I read most of it," if only because it was one of the few books in his home (85). Jesse and May Belle are shocked when Leslie finds the story of Christ's crucifixion beautiful, "like Abraham Lincoln or Socrates—or Aslan" (84). Jesse supports May Belle's contention that "It's scary." And, reaching "down into the deepest pit of his mind," he says, "It's because we're all vile sinners God made Jesus die" (84).
Jesse's comments recall the first sin of Genesis 3:7: "Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves to- gether and made loincloths for themselves," and God expelled them from the Garden of Eden. In Bridge to Terabithia Leslie serves as Eve, leading Jesse, her Adam, to the tree of knowledge. Leslie, like Eve, is eager to learn and experience all the delights that the world offers. Jesse follows out of love and friendship despite his own deep uneasiness and a sense that there is danger lurking ahead on the path to Terabithia. Unlike Adam and Eve, the children do not need a serpent to lead them astray because the first sin, that of Adam an Eve in the Garden, has already tainted the world. Hopkins describes the situation in "God's Grandeur":
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Hopkins believed that people no longer see or feel God's handiwork; their rational minds are separated from God even as their feet are separated from the soil by the soles of their shoes. Paterson agrees with Hopkins's analysis that all humanity suffers the results of the first fall. She writes:
Perhaps this is why so often we try to convince ourselves that though Eden is lost to us, surely our children are still in the Garden. But the deed has been done—not only in that mythical Paradise but throughout human history. There's no hiding place down here. There's no going back to a place of perfect harmony and innocence.
(Spying Heart 113)
May Belle and Jesse know just enough of the Bible to have heard of original sin. As Jesse says, "we're all vile sinners," and May Belle blurts out her understanding that "if you don't believe the Bible…. God'll damn you to hell when you die" (Bridge to Terabithia 85).
But their faith is not mature enough to understand God's saving grace in the person of Jesus Christ. Hopkins draws a direct relationship between Eden and Christ in his poem "Spring." It is Leslie who sees past God's judgment to redemption. Speaking of the Easter story, she says, "It's crazy, isn't it?" She shook her head. "You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don't have to believe it, and I think it's beautiful." (Bridge to Terabithia 85). Despite May Belle's protests, Leslie refuses to believe that "God goes around damning people to hell" (85). Christ's redeeming power is what Leslie discerns from the Easter story. It is Jessie and May Belle, raised on the fringes of the church, who declare, "You gotta believe the Bible," but who fail to see the ultimate biblical truth of redemption through Christ (85). Their faith seems bound by the dictates of original sin. Leslie, however, sees beyond original sin to the beauty of the Easter story, perhaps glimpsing the power of grace that Hopkins describes in "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" when he writes,
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is—
Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces."
This recognition that God works through human beings, "through the features of men's faces," is a central theme of Christian faith. Christ, God's own son, was created in the image of both God and man to save humanity from "damnation to hell" and to point the way to salvation. When Leslie protests, "But I still don't think God goes around damning people to hell," she is reflecting a belief in a kinder, gentler God than May Belle's, a God with the power to save as well as curse.
On the day after Easter, the rains begin. Paterson again uses vivid sensory imagery—"The icy mud sent little thrills of pain up their legs, so they ran, splashing through the puddles and slushing in the mud" (88)—and metaphor, comparing the "long dry creek bed" to the Red Sea in the movie The Ten Commandments. Jesse is afraid, and "the fear of the crossing rose with the height of the creek" (90). Leslie has no fear; she swings across the creek with undiminished enthusiasm. Terabithia loses its charm for Jesse. "Dread lay on Jess's stomach like a hunk of cold, undigested doughnut" (91). Paterson's repetition of the differences in the children's attitudes toward the rising creek does more than add suspense; it shows the basic difference between them. Leslie's self-confidence reveals a lack of understanding of the power of nature. Just as she cannot believe in a damning God, she cannot conceive of the dangers lurking in the natural world. Jesse, however, not only appreciates the beauty of the natural world, but is also fully aware of God's power in nature. His fears are validated by the swirling waters that take Leslie's life.
Hopkins' masterpiece, "The Wreck of the Deutschland," expresses this duality and mystery of God:
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung;
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.
The opposing forces of the poem, "lightning and love," "winter and warm," serve as testimony to the power of God, a power which Leslie fails to heed. Leslie continues to trust the rope that some long ago person had tied to the crab apple tree rather than to recognize the real danger of the raging waters. The rope breaks, Leslie falls, and she dies when her head hits a rock in the rain-swollen creek bed.
When Leslie dies, Jesse experiences a deep and profound grief compounded by his guilt in not warning Leslie of the danger or inviting her to go with him and his art teacher to Washington for the day. The sad refrain "if only" seems to run through the text. When Jesse finally returns to the woods, he tosses his artwork into the swirling waters and watches as it disappears. He realizes that he has "nowhere to go. Nowhere. Ever again" (Bridge to Terabithia 115). Like Adam's after the fall, Jesse's life will never be the same. He, too, has eaten of the tree of knowledge; he knows the devastating feeling of loss, and he worries about what he doesn't know: has God damned Leslie to Hell? When he gathers the courage to ask his father about May Belle's comment, his father responds simply. "May Belle ain't God" (116). Jesse finds strength and comfort in this simple declaration and in his father's assurance that "God ain't gonna send any little girls to hell" (116). Ultimately for Jesse, it is in nature, the same nature that takes Leslie's life, that he finds renewal.
Both Paterson and Hopkins emphasize this dynamic mystery of God as seen in nature. Hopkins writes in "God's Grandeur" that "nature is never spent" (9). The natural world is always reborn and the "Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings" (14). God, like a mother bird, watches over and nurtures the world's creatures. It is this care, as well as the creative force, the "bright wings," that brings forth new life. For Jesse, too, it is the image of a bird which provides hope for the future. As Jesse makes a wreath of pine boughs to honor Terabithia's dead queen, "a cardinal flew down to the bank, cocked its brilliant head, and seemed to stare at the wreath" (Bridge to Terabithia 120). Jesse interprets the bird's leisurely flight as approval, and after he takes the wreath to the sacred grove, he feels relief. "Like a single bird across a storm-cloud sky, a tiny peace winged its way through the chaos inside his body" (120).
At novel's end, Jesse has been bent and broken, but has grown stronger for his suffering. He could be the "young child" to whom Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote his poem, "Spring and Fall: to a young child." In many ways, this poem telescopes the action of the novel into a few simple lines. In the poem, Margaret is grieving the coming of fall when the trees lose their leaves. The poet knows, as Margaret will in time, that her grief is really for her own mortality as foretold by the passing of time in nature. Jesse, too, mourns for a lost garden and for the dear friend who brought it to life. Like Margaret, Jesse is also mourning his own innocence, which he has lost in the garden when, through Leslie, he, too, encounters death face to face.
Ultimately, the garden and Leslie's friendship give him strength. As Paterson writes, "It was up to him [Jesse] to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength. As for the terrors ahead—for he did not fool himself that they were behind him—well, you just have to stand up to your fear and not let it squeeze you white" (126). Jesse is strong enough at novel's end to build a bridge for May Belle and to lead her to Terabithia.
Eden as Island
In Jacob Have I Loved Paterson's Eden moves from forest to island. She continues to recreate paradise, albeit a paradise with warts, and to take characters on the journey to self-knowledge. Hopkins's notion of the "inscape" or essence of each individual provides an interesting lens through which to view Sara Louise, the novel's protagonist. Sara Louise's crisis of identity leads to a crisis of spirit. In the poem cited earlier, "As Kingfishers Catch Fire," Hopkins emphasizes that by being itself a creature praises God. Sara Louise cannot be herself until she discovers and accepts herself. Only after coming to terms with her own inscape is she able to accept and praise the God who created her.
Paterson begins Jacob Have I Loved by looking at the natural world of Rass Island through the eyes of the adult Sara Louise who is returning to Rass after years away. In a forward, titled "Rass Island," Sara Louise says, "The ferry will be almost there before I can see Rass, lying low as a terrapin back on the faded olive water of the Chesapeake" (1). In this one sentence, Paterson uses both metaphor, comparing the island to a sea turtle, and visual imagery ("faded olive water") to convey with precision the beauty of the natural scene. Sara Louise goes on to describe her childhood response to Rass when she says, "As a child I secretly welcomed the first warm day of spring by yanking off my shoes and standing waist deep in cordgrass to feel the cool mud squish up between my toes" (3). Paterson imbues Sara Louise's memories with sensory images—the feel of the mud, the smell of "the grass mingled with that of the brackish water of the Bay," the chill spring wind and the bright sun reflecting off the water. This imagery conveys the feeling that Sara Louise puts into words a paragraph later, "I love Rass Island, although for much of my life, I did not think I did" (Jacob Have I Loved 4).
The language and emotion of these passages are reminiscent of Hopkins's poem, "Pied Beauty." Hopkins extols the variety and beauty of nature in image piled upon image. He highlights the particularity of each individual thing mentioned by creating new words ("fresh-firecoal chestnut falls") and new metaphors (comparing the sky to a cow).
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
In the next line Hopkins further emphasizes the uniqueness of each created entity by referring to "All things counter, original, spare, strange" (7). Hopkins coins the term inscape to refer to the individuality, or essence, of each individual element of nature. According to one Hopkins critic, "Inscape was the absolute selfhood of something in harmony with other things; the more inscape something had, the more being it had" (Ellsberg 11). Hopkins observes nature closely, looking for the inscape of each thing, and he concludes that each of God's creations shares a common creator and the obligation to praise God by being itself as God created it to be. As Hopkins says in the last line of "Pied Beauty:" "He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: / Praise him" (10).
Sara Louise, called Wheeze by her family and friends, embarks on an often tortuous journey to self-discovery. She must identify her own "inscape," those parts of her being which make her a unique person, not simply a twin or a daughter or an islander. Wheeze's teenage observations reveal her oneness with the natural world and her recognition of the uniqueness, or inscape, of each of the island's creatures, yet she remains unaware that she, too, possesses an individual stamp that is unique in all of creation. Her observations are acute. For example, when a large sea turtle disappears, Wheeze refers to the creature with precision—it was a "large sea terrapin" which "dove straight through the eelgrass into the bottom mud" (6), and she describes the lifecycle of crabs with similar precision:
We paused to net a huge male crab, a true number one Jimmy, swimming doubled over a she-crab. He was taking her to the thick eelgrass where she would shed for the last time and become a grown-up lady crab—a sook. When she was soft, there would be a proper crab wedding, of course, with the groom staying around to watch out for his bride until her shell was hard once more, and she could protect herself and her load of eggs on her own.
The use of local terms like sooks, rank peelers, loblolly pine saplings, and cordgrass accurately portrays the natural setting of the island and flows from Wheeze's daily experiences. When the adult Sara Louise says that she did not always love Rass, she is referring to the people and community on Rass, not the natural world of the island itself.
The Outsider in Paradise
Wheeze spends much of her time alone or with Call, her friend, progging for crabs, walking the length of the island, and sailing the sea around the island. Such intense involvement with nature is unnatural for a Rass Island girl. As Wheeze says, "The women of my island were not supposed to love the water" (43). But, for Wheeze, "only on the water was there peace" (76). The peace Wheeze longs for, and finds in nature, is missing at home where she must compete with her twin sister, Caroline, for attention, and with her crotchety grandmother for space and tranquility.
Being a twin certainly contributes to Wheeze's inability to see herself as a unique individual. She is unable to identify that which makes her unique, her inscape, and her talents seem nonexistent to Wheeze in contrast to the very public talents of her twin sister, Caroline. From before birth, she has been forced to share everything with Caroline, and because Caroline was the more physically needy of the children, Wheeze often feels pushed aside. Almost immediately after the twins' birth, Susan Bradshaw takes Caroline to the hospital, leaving Wheeze "clean, cold, and motherless" (Jacob Have I Loved 19). It is two months before the mother brings Caroline back to the island, but Caroline's continued delicacy requires her mother's doting attention. When told by her mother that she was a "good baby" who "never gave us a minute's worry," Wheeze, while realizing that her mother's words are meant as comfort, still wonders, "Shouldn't I have been at least a minute's worry?" Was it the worry that made "Caroline so dear to them?" (19). As the girls grow older, Caroline continues to require special attention. With whooping cough Carolyn is rushed to the hospital while Wheeze is treated at home. With chicken pox, both girls are sick, but Wheeze's illness and the subsequent scars become fodder for teasing rather than compassion. When Caroline shows signs of genuine musical talent, her talents are nurtured despite the extra costs, and Wheeze contributes her own hard-earned money toward her sister's music lessons.
With her place at home usurped by Caroline, Wheeze turns to her father and the outdoor life for solace. Her father treats her "with a certain roughness, not quite as he would have treated a son, but certainly differently from the way he treats Caroline" (21). He teaches Wheeze to pole a skiff when she is only six years old, and it is to the water and to the tip of the island, rather than to her mother and home that Wheeze goes for comfort and peace. When Wheeze is humiliated in school by the response of her teacher and classmates to her suggestion that they cancel Christmas due to the war, Wheeze holds her emotions in check until she can escape to her special place. In recalling that day, Wheeze says,
I rushed out before anyone could catch up with me and walked, not home, but across the length of the marsh on the high path to the very southern tip of the island…. It was only when I came to the end of the path and sat down upon a giant stump of driftwood and stared at the sickly winter moon waveringly reflected on the black water that I realized how cold I was and began to cry.
It is as if Wheeze is in such a harmony with the natural world that the moon itself becomes sick with her despair, and she is at last free to cry aloud.
When the Christmas program is held a few nights later, Caroline sings the beautiful hymn, "I Wonder as I Wander," and Wheeze, who has spent her life wondering and wandering alone on the island feels she might shatter with the power and beauty of it. She says of the trip home that night, "When we left the gymnasium, the stars were so bright, they pulled me up into the sky like powerful magnets. I walked, my head back, my own nearly flat chest pressed up against the bosom of heaven, dizzied by the winking brilliance of the night" (36). Wheeze's sense of wonder seems nearly identical to that described by Gerard Manley Hopkins in the poem "The Starlight Night":
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The poem continues to extol the beauty of the starlight night and concludes in typical Hopkins fashion by praising Christ. The haunting Christmas hymn that Caroline sings at the program also speaks of Christ:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
Why Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander—out under the sky.
(Jacob Have I Loved 35)
But as beautiful as Caroline's voice is, her actions prove crass and unkind. Once the family arrives home, Caroline imitates the flat and shaky singing of another girl. Wheeze waits for her mother to scold Caroline, but there is no reprimand. It is Wheeze who has "a burning desire to hit her in the mouth…." (38). Wheeze alone recognizes how far from Eden the family has fallen. Carolyn has been given the gift of a beautiful voice. To use it to mock others is to mock the God who gifted her. That night, Wheeze prays her childhood prayers, but is unable to summon any comfort from the familiar words. Instead, she thinks of death, and "There was something about the thought of God being with me that made me feel more alone than ever."
Wheeze shares the attitude of Hopkins's "Caged Skylark" during this period of her life. Like Hopkins's bird, she no longer remembers her days of childhood joy, but dwells instead on her present unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Wheeze is the bird that Hopkins describes;
That bird beyond the remembering his free fells,
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life's age
Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage,
Both sing sometimes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
Yet both droop deadly sometimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.
Like the skylark, Wheeze suffers "bursts of fear or rage," or periods of despondency when she feels "more alone than ever." And like the skylark, Wheeze must find a way to release herself from the cage built by her separation from God and family.
Strangely enough, it is disaster that finally draws the family together. Wheeze notes that "It is a mysterious thing how cheerful people become in the face of disaster" (116). The hurricane of 1942 hit the island hard. Paterson uses metaphor and vivid sensory imagery to portray the power of the storm when she writes, "The rain was coming down now like machine-gun fire" (120), and "the moan of the wind shifted into a shriek" (121). Grandma calls on God to calm the seas. "Why must the righteous suffer?" (123) she asks and cries like a frightened child until the Captain begins reading from the Bible. As he reads "God is our refuge and strength …," Wheeze begins to visualize the power of God. "Into my mind came a wonderful and terrible picture of great forested mountains, shaken by a giant hand that scooped them up, finally, and flung them into the boiling sea. I had never seen a mountain …" (125).
This passage is reminiscent of the original creation story when the hand of God separates the waters from the dry land, and Paterson's descriptive words enliven this image. For the first time Wheeze declares that she will not become a fearful old woman, alone on the island, like her grandmother. Loneliness has turned Grandma into a bitter woman who uses the word of God to punish those around her. Wheeze, responding to the images in the Bible passage the Captain read, declares to herself that "I was fourteen, and I had never seen a mountain. I was going to, though" (125).
The storm changes Rass. The island is diminished as acres of its land, including the Captain's home, are washed into the sea. The Captain, strong and independent, is now weakened and lost. When he realized that where his house had stood there was "nothing," he appeared to Wheeze "like a little boy trying not to cry" (131). It is the Captain's moment of weakness that touches Wheeze in an unexpected way. Wheeze and the Captain are together in the skiff when Wheeze slips off the thwart and kneels to embrace him. She intends comfort, but is startled by the sexual energy of the embrace. "An alarm began to clang inside my body," she says, and she pulls back, embarrassed and ashamed (132).
The storm in Jacob Have I Loved proves once again, as did the storm in Bridge to Terabithia, that there are no safe places in this world. The Captain loses his home, and Wheeze loses a valued relationship with the Captain. She fears not only the Captain's judgment, but the reaction of her family when they learn of the embrace. It is only later that Wheeze realizes that the Captain would never betray her. Nevertheless, their relationship has changed forever. Wheeze and the Captain manage to avoid one another until he moves out of the Bradshaw's cramped quarters to Auntie Braxton's house. Wheeze decides that she must be crazy, and "as soon as I admitted it, I became quite calm" (150). Wheeze, who recently vowed not to become like the Grandmother, now imagines herself as "a crazy, independent old woman" and feels "almost happy." It is Caroline who suggests to the Captain that he take the unusual step of marrying his childhood sweetheart, Trudy Braxton. Caroline explains that plenty of people on Rass would take the Captain in, but Auntie Braxton "needs" him (158). At the very time when Wheeze is contemplating a life alone, the Captain and Trudy Braxton are at last finding the happiness that eluded them when they were younger.
In his poem "At the Wedding March," Hopkins admonishes the young wedding couple to:
Each be other's comfort kind:
Deep, deeper than divined,
Divine charity, dear charity,
Fast you ever, fast bind.
His words allude to the depth and exclusiveness of the marriage relationship. The Bradshaws' marriage epitomizes these characteristics, and while the marriage of the Captain and Trudy Braxton takes place late in their life, it, too, is based on mutual respect and admiration. Wheeze stands alone, "all gray and shadow" (Jacob Have I Loved 39) observing the Captain and Auntie Braxton's unexpected marriage. For years she has worried about her parents' marriage. When she was thirteen, she had decided that her parents' marriage was doomed: "They had nothing in common as far as I could tell from the questionnaires I read" (39). And yet as time goes on, she sees that her parents' marriage survives despite the financial hardships of life on Rass, despite storms and hurricanes, and despite the verbal attacks of a demented old woman, Wheeze's paternal grandmother, who accuses her daughter-in-law of being a whore.
Wheeze's parents, the Captain and Trudy Braxton, and eventually even Caroline and Call find completeness through marriage, while Wheeze repeatedly uses the word "alone" to describe herself. When Call announces his plans to marry Caroline, it is almost more than Wheeze can bear. "If I had believed in God I could have cursed him and died" (208). Instead, she goes to the crab house and "fishes the floats," seeking relief in work and fulfilling the promise of Genesis 3:19: "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread." Wheeze has longed for Call's return home. As she later told the Captain, "I don't know if I wanted to marry him … but I wanted something" (216). Usurped in her cradle by Caroline, Wheeze has "wandered lonely as a cloud," turning to nature when the people in her life failed to meet her expectations. Unsure of her place in the universe, Wheeze sees the happiness of others in a cruel contrast to her own lack of direction.
After all, wasn't it God's plan that male and female would be joined together? Wheeze, who knows the Bible is certainly aware of the words from the second chapter of Genesis, in which Lord God says, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner" (Genesis 2:18). Seeing the others paired while she remains single contributes to her sense of alienation. Is she a beloved child of God or is she Esau whom God hated? As her jealousy grows, she falls victim to the rantings of her deranged grandmother, who taunts her with the story of Jacob and Esau. Wheeze rereads the passage in the Bible and finds that it is God who declares, "Jacob have I loved…." This discovery leads her to conclude, "It was God himself who hated me" (181). Wheeze feels that "God had judged me before I was born and had cast me out before I took my first breath …" (186). She, in turn, casts God out of her life and abandons her faith.
Several passages from the Jacob and Esau story would have been particularly stinging to the young Wheeze. In Genesis 15:23, the Lord says, "the elder shall serve the younger," and in verse 27, the biblical story notes that "Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents." It is the bolder, more physically skilled Wheeze who spends hours earning extra money so that the favored Caroline can have music lessons. Caroline spends her days in the house helping with lighter chores while Wheeze labors on the boat. When Caroline is offered the opportunity to attend music school on the mainland, Wheeze refuses to return to the island school, a school where she has never felt at home, and accepts a man's role, fishing the oyster beds with her father. As a waterman her father has one of the most physically demanding jobs in the world, and therefore, according to Wheeze, he needed a son. To the people of Rass Island, sons represented "wealth and security" (19), and while Wheeze "would have given anything to be that son," the strict division of work on Rass seemed to make that impossible—"a waterman's boat was not the place for a girl" (21). The war, however, changes everything, and Wheeze crosses the traditional gender boundaries. With so many island men away, it is Wheeze who labors side-by-side with her father and says that the work "sucked from me every breath, every thought, every trace of energy" (188). As she goes out each morning before dawn like the rest of the watermen, she says, "No one said anything about my not being a man—maybe they'd forgotten" (187). While this kind of role reversal is generally experienced as liberating, for Wheeze, it compounds her lack of self-definition. Gender is, after all, the first way that individuals are defined. The doctor announces at birth, "It's a boy," or "It's a girl." But in Wheeze's teenage life, even that most basic identification disappears when she says, "maybe they'd forgotten." Wheeze, unsure of her own identity, moves even further from God. She no longer acknowledges God's presence in the world nor in her life. She stops going to church and stops praying. She feels that "God, if not dead, [is] far removed from my concern" (188).
However, when Wheeze says that God has judged her before she was born and "cast me out" the reference is to both the Jacob and Esau story and to the concept of original sin and God's banishment of Adam and Eve. Wheeze has fallen prey to the sin of jealousy. First, of course, she was jealous of Caroline, then of the Captain and Trudy, and finally of the happiness that her parents found in their time together in New York for Caroline's wedding. Wheeze noted that on their return, her parents "walked closer together than they needed to, touching each other as they walked every few steps and then smiling into each other's faces" (220). The combination of her parent's marital bliss and her grandmother's increasing cruelty finally forced Wheeze to confront her own fears. As Wheeze and her mother wash windows, Wheeze asks her mother why she settled for Rass.
Her mother, startled by the angry tone in Wheeze's voice, replies that she made a choice—she left her family and moved to Rass. When she was thirteen, Wheeze had confidently declared that when she marries, "it won't be an islander" (6) and inherent in that statement was her own ambivalence about life on Rass. Now nearing adulthood, Wheeze tells her mother, "I'm not going to rot here like Grandma. I'm going to get off this island and do something … You're not going to stop me either" (226).
Susan Bradshaw says simply, "I wouldn't stop you." Susan Bradshaw grants Wheeze the freedom to choose to stay or to leave, but adds, "oh, Louise, we will miss you, your father and I" (227). Deeply touched by the genuine love in her mother's voice, love that has always been there but that Wheeze could not recognize, Wheeze gains the courage to leave the island and to "begin to build myself as a soul, separate from the long, long shadow of my twin" (228).
What Sara Louise finds is another Garden, a "mountain-locked valley" that "is more like an island than anything else I know" (232). She builds her "soul" through her vocation and her marriage to Joseph Wojtkiewicz. It is Joseph who declares that "God in heaven's been raising you for this valley from the day you were born" (236). Joseph's words reinforce Hopkins's notion that God grants each individual a uniqueness, or inscape, and each of God's creations has an obligation to use this individual essence to create harmony and to praise God. Wheeze is no longer alone and unsure of herself; she has Joseph, and together they will create their own family. Through her nursing and her family, she has discovered herself.
It is in the final act of the novel, however, that the story comes full circle. When Wheeze delivers twin babies, the first, a boy, is strong and well. The second, a girl, is as tiny and delicate as Carolyn had been. Her survival is less sure than that of her stronger brother. At the pleading of the young father, Sara Louise, who had once abandoned God now speaks for God: "I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen." In this act of praise and dedication, Sara Louise finds a lasting peace. In the mountains and among the mountain people she lets go of her jealousy, fear, and loneliness and rededicates herself to others and to the God of all creation. She recognizes her own unique vocation, her inscape, and comes into harmony with the natural world and with God. Eden is lost forever, but, in Hopkins's words, Sara Louise now realizes that "the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings" ("God's Grandeur" 13-14), and knowing herself, she is now able to praise the God who created her.
Faith through Self-Knowledge
Both Jesse Aarons and Sara Louise Bradshaw grow in knowledge of themselves through their interactions with the natural world. They experience the beauty and power of God's creation, finding in nature a sanctuary that provides comfort and joy in the short term, but which forces them to face the reality of sin and death. For Jesse, that harsh reality is the raging river that claims Leslie's life. Rather than turn away from nature, he returns to Terabithia stronger, ready to face all that life brings, both good and bad. Sara Louise leaves her Eden, forced out by the reality that she will never be whole until she finds her own garden and someone to till it with her. Sara Louise sees the beauty in her mountain home, which she declares is as "awesome and beautiful as the open water," but she also sees that the mountain people must "struggle against their mountains" just as the Rass islanders seek to tame the waters. The cycle seems complete. When God created the world, God gave us gardens. Writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Katherine Paterson also bring order from chaos, recreating lost gardens and holding up the promise of God's renewing grace.
1. See Gardner xxxv.
2. All references to Hopkins's poems are from The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 4th ed., and line numbers will be quoted parenthetically in the text.
Bump, Jerome. "Hopkins as a Jesuit Poet." Critical Essays on Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed. Alison G. Sulloway. Boston: Hall, 1990. 61-91.
Gardner, W. H. "Introduction to the Fourth Edition." The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. 4th ed. Ed. W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie. New York: Oxford UP, 1970. xiii-xxxviiii.
Ellsberg, Margaret R. Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. 4th ed. Ed. W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.
Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989.
McNamee, Maurice, B., S.J. "Hopkins: Poet of Nature and of the Supernatural." Immortal Diamond: Studies in Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York: Octagon, 1969. 222-51.
Mischeff, Sue. "Beneath the Web and Over the Stream: The Search for Safe Places in Charlotte's Web and Bridge to Terabithia." Children's Literature in Education (1998): 131-41.
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. 1977. New York: HarperCollins, 1987.
———. "Dog Day Wonder." Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. New York: Elsevier/Nelson Books, 1981. 19-22.
———. The Great Gilly Hopkins. New York: Crowell, 1978.
———. Jacob Have I Loved. 1980. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
———. The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children. New York: Dutton, 1989.
———. "Where Is Terabithia?" Innocence & Experience: Essays & Conversations on Children's Literature. Ed. Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire. New York: Lothrop, 1987. 224-33.
Walhout, Donald. Send My Roots Rain: A Study of Religious Experience in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1981.
Don Nelson (essay date September-October 2005)
SOURCE: Nelson, Don. "Braving the Awful Truth." Science and Spirit 16, no. 5 (September-October 2005): 68-9.
[In the following essay, Nelson discusses Paterson's personal life and literary career, noting the impact of Bridge to Terabithia on both.]
"Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time," E. B. White once declared. "You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly."
American author Katherine Paterson has made a career of showing life's pain and sadness to her young readers. In her novel The Same Stuff as Stars, the main character, an eleven-year-old girl named Angel, is abandoned by her father and mother, although she becomes connected to the bigger story of the universe through her friendship with an astronomer she meets in the woods. In Bridge to Terabithia, perhaps Paterson's most famous book, a boy named Jess struggles with guilt, shame, loss, and anger at God for the death of his best friend. In an anthology of essays on her writings called Bridges for the Young: The Fiction of Katherine Paterson, editors Joel D. Chaston and M. Sarah Smedman call Paterson a realist, a prophet, and "a disturber of complacency." Paterson's works often have been criticized for their painfully serious themes; some have been banned by school districts and libraries. But Paterson, who has won more than sixty literary awards for her thirty-five books, says she is merely being honest with an audience that deserves her candor.
"I am a writer for children, a person who tries to help make meaning," she says. "But we can't make meaning for anyone, much less the young, unless we first are willing to tell them the truth. My books give kids permission to have real feelings instead of the false feelings people try to impose on them."
Paterson's philosophy stems, at least in part, from her own childhood experiences of not fitting in, or feeling she was different from those around her. Her parents served as missionaries in China, and, as she made sense of the surrounding culture, she often felt herself an outsider. Now in her seventies, Paterson lives in Vermont with her husband, a Presbyterian minister. They have raised four children, two of whom are adopted, and are grandparents to seven. Paterson has the enthusiasm and energy of an elementary schoolteacher, and conversation with her is punctuated frequently by her deep, throaty laughter. But she becomes serious when the subject turns to life's hardships, for which she believes books are a form of preparation.
"Often, people tell me they have given Bridge to Terabithia to a child who has suffered some terrible loss," she says. "When they do, I want to say, ‘Too late, too late.’ The time a child needs a book about life's dark passages is before he or she has had to experience them. We need practice with loss, rehearsal for grieving, just as we need preparation for decision making."
It was a painful personal experience—her own family's brutal confrontation with mortality—that tuned Paterson in to the need for such practice and inspired Bridge to Terabithia. When Paterson's son David was eight years old, he was both the class artist and class clown in his elementary school. But when that school closed and the children were transferred to a nearby community school, his gifts and personality were deemed "stupid" and "weird" by his new peers. Life was nearly unbearable until he became friends with Lisa, who loved art and animals and baseball as much as he did. Life was good again. That summer, though, in a freak accident, Lisa was killed by a bolt of lightning. A few months later, David said to his mother after his prayers, "I know why Lisa died. It's because God hates me. It's because I'm bad. God killed her. Probably he's going to kill Mary [his sister] next. Then, he's going to kill you and Dad." Paterson wondered how she could help David understand Lisa's death, when she could not make sense of it herself.
Barrow, Craig W. "Bridge to Terabithia." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 1, edited by Kirk H. Beetz and Suzanne Niemeyer, pp. 148-54. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, Inc., 1989.
Offers a summary of Bridge to Terabithia's overriding themes, emphasizing its reliance upon "bridge building."
Bernstein, Joanne E., and Masha Kabakow Rudman. "Writing about Loss: Katherine Paterson." In Books to Help Children Cope with Separation and Loss: An Annotated Bibliography, Volume 3, pp. 90-2. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1989.
Examines Paterson's ability to fuse the power of sadness and humor in Bridge to Terabithia to create an emotional impact on her readers.
Foerstel, Herbert N. "Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson." In Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries, pp. 157-59. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Highlights several censorship challenges brought against Bridge to Terabithia since its original publication.
Misheff, Sue. "Beneath the Web and Over the Stream: The Search for Safe Places in Charlotte's Web and Bridge to Terabithia." Children's Literature in Education 29, no. 3 (September 1998): 131-41.
Explores the creation of "safe places" in children's texts through a study of E. B. White's Charlotte's Web and Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia.
Paterson, Katherine. "Where Is Terabithia?" Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 4 (winter 1984-1985): 153-57.
Paterson discusses the importance of "place" in Bridge to Terabithia.
Paterson, Katherine, and Peter T. Chattaway. "Deeper in Terabithia." Christianity Today 51, no. 3 (March 2007): 65-6.
Paterson discusses how Christianity influenced the writing of Bridge to Terabithia.
Additional coverage of Paterson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 31; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 2, 7; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 7, 50; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 28, 59, 111; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 12, 30; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 52; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 13, 53, 92, 133; and Writers for Young Adults.