Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson – Review by Tara Smith
(Note: I know that many of you share these posts with your children and students. Be warned that this post contains spoilers and was written with others who have already read this book in mind. – CM)
I first read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia when I was stuck at the orthodontist’s office without a book of my own, and Terabithia beckoned to me from my daughter’s backpack. The book looked beaten up, with dog eared pages, and the cover was faded and ripped…but a glance at the pages told me all I needed to know – this was a well loved book. I could trace the tracks of that love in every page: I could tell that children had carried this book to the kitchen table and read as they munched on their school snack, or their morning cereal, I could see phrases underlined and sticky notes here and there with the tell tale signs of a reader’s response to a text – ! or ? or Woah! This book radiated reader’s love. And so I dove in…
… what an amazing experience! As the funny lady in the long ago sitcom said: I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me. Since I read it along with my daughter who was in fifth grade at the time, I could see that she had the very same response. We talked about the experience for days and days afterwards, and I came to understand the power of Terabithia. After all, haven’t we all longed, at one time or another, to find a kindred soul of whom we could say:
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 all the worlds beyond.
And haven’t we all wished for a special place, a refuge from the ordinary world of which we could say :
We need a place just for us. It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it. It might be a whole secret country and you and I would be the rulers of it.
Bridge to Terabithia is a story of the unexpected friendship that springs up between Jess Aarons and his new neighbor Leslie Burke, who moves into town just as fifth grade at Lark Creek Elementary is about to begin. Leslie is different – not only because she looks and carries herself differently from everyone else, not only because she can run faster and more gracefully than Jess (who prides himself on his form and his speed), but because Leslie seemed to hold the keys to a richly imagined world:
Leslie was one of those people who sat quietly at her desk, never whispering or daydreaming or chewing gum, doing beautiful school work, and yet her brain was full of mischief…
When Leslie decides to “build our castle stronghold” in the woods beyond their homes, one that can only gain entry by swinging across a creek on an enchanted rope, Jess is swept along. Terabithia, becomes more than a place in which to story tell and escape from school yard bullies and family woes. As Jess describes it:
Just walking down the hill towards the woods made something warm and liquid steal through his body. The closer he came to the dry creek bed and the crab apple tree rope, the more he could feel the beating of his heart. He grabbed the end of the rope and swung out to the other bank with a kind of wild exhilaration and landed gently on his feet, taller and stronger and wiser in that mysterious land.
But, idylls rarely last; even in the safest and most magical places, sorrow and loss is inevitable. On the one day that Jess fails to meet Leslie for their trek into Terabithia, magic ceases to be their guardian angel, the rope breaks, and Leslie is lost. Grief and guilt stricken, Jess rages against all that conspired against the magic of Terabithia – the rain, Leslie’s undaunted spirit, and chance…why did the rope fray? why does Death walk amongst us? how does Death choose? And then, he comes to an understanding:
It was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king. He had thought that was it. Wasn’t king the best you could be? Now it occurred to him that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. 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? (Handle with care—everything—even the predators.)
Now it was time for him to move out. She wasn’t there, so he must go for both of them. It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.
At this point in the book, you the reader are reaching for your tenth tissue, and filled with conflicting thoughts: you understand (sort of) why the author has crafted this particular ending, yet you wish it wasn’t so. And you are filled with questions, understandings, realizations. This is what great books reduce you to. How wonderful. For in those questions, understandings, realizations, and need for tissues, you know that this particular story has entered your heart forever. You will remember how Leslie served as Jess’ true compass, how there are people in our lives who can do just that. You will remember that those we love may leave us, but love endures. You will remember the magic of Terabithia.
Tara Smith teaches sixth grade in suburban New Jersey. When she is not teaching, she can most often be found reading…and when she is not reading she is on the hunt for new books to read. Tara blogs at A Teaching Life, and she is a member of the Two Writing Teachers blog.