Bridge To Terabithia: Troubling The Waters

Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick reads Katherine Paterson's 1977 book 'Bridge to Terabithia', the story of Jess Aarons, the second-fastest runner in the fifth grade.

The life-changing friend is a standard trope of teen fiction, but rereading Bridge to Terabithia, it occurs to me that one does tire of the all-too-common morally bracing appearance of a Pollyanna (as in my beloved "An Old-Fashioned Girl," or, you know, "Pollyanna.") An outsider who is revolutionary purely because of her strangeness ("The Secret Garden," "Iggie's House") is a great variation, but I'm not sure I've ever seen before a character who manages to be both moral and strange outside Bridge to Terabithia's Leslie Burke — both wholly herself and wholly strange, and wholly a revelation to protaganist Jess Aaron.Jess Aaron is a fifth-grader whose elbows are bumping up against both his own limitations and those of his outside life (insofar as a fifth-grader has an an external and internal life — but, you know, if anyone can make you understand how they do, it's Katherine Paterson). The oldest boy in a working-class family of four other girls, he's a budding artist, which goes over poorly with his trucker dad ("'What are they teaching in that damn school? Bunch of old ladies turning him into a—'"), as well as with the old ladies, in fact ("The devil of it was that none of his regular teachers ever liked his drawings. When they'd catch him scribbling, they'd screech about waste-wasted time, wasted paper, wasted ability.") His mother, overwhelmed with his sisters, is too busy to pay much attention to him, but Jess, who's asked to stand in as the man of the household when his father is gone to work in D.C., feels the loss of his father the most keenly:
Jess watched his dad stop the truck, lean over to unlatch the door, so May Belle could climb in. He turned away. Durn lucky kid. She could run after him and grab him and kiss him. It made Jess ache inside to watch his dad grab the little ones to his shoulder, or lean down and hug them. It seemed to him that he had been thought too big for that since the day he was born.
His new neighbor, the life-changing Leslie Burke, could not be more different. A transplant from D.C., child of noblesse oblige who've taken a house in rural Virginia because they're "reassessing their value structure", Leslie meets Jess in the meadow where he is practicing his running in anticipation of winning one of the lunchtime heats to make him the fastest runner in the school. Leslie's comment, very far from typical girlish admiration, is, like herself, both artless and unwittingly incisive:
"If you're so afraid of the cow, why don't you just climb the fence?"
As it happens, Jess is afraid — although he doesn't realize it until he sees his new schoolmate Leslie flout all of the conventions that have held him back heretofore. On her first day of school, Leslie , shows up in old tennis shoes and shorts, in stark contrast to all the country children in their faded best. A child of a world where pride would keep anyone from showing up that way in public unless they had to, Jess is embarrassed for her — but then finds himself defending her when she breaks yet another barrier — joining the boys in the race:
"Gary stopped walking and wheeled to face him. Fulcher glared first at Jess and then at Leslie Burke. "Next thing," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "next thing you're gonna want to let some girl run." Jess's face went hot. "Sure," he said recklessly. "Why not?" He turned deliberately toward Leslie. "Wanna run?" he asked. ....For a minute he thought Gary was going to sock him, and he stiffened. He mustn't let Fulcher suspect he was scared of a little belt in the mouth. But instead Gary broke into a trot and started bosses the threes into line for their heat....See, he told himself, you can stand up to a creep like Fulcher. No sweat.
Of course, Leslie then goes on to beat the pants off all of the boys in the school. It's not a particularly feminist moment, though: she is honestly confused when they refuse to accept her win, as they will refuse to accept every other aspect of her that doesn't fit in with their world. Beating them in running, they must understand, is only one of the examples in which Leslie is literally ahead —not due to her economic and cultural advantages, necessarily, but in how those freedoms have enabled her to be utterly herself, a privilege they don't share. Jess, attempting to break boundaries himself, is bitterly disappointed to lose, but still differs from his peers in that he can see that Leslie's open embrace of life isn't something to be feared, but admired, recognizing his own desires to be authentically himself in her: "She ran as though it was her nature. It reminded him of the flight of wild ducks in autumn. So smooth. The word 'beautiful' came to his mind, but he shook it away and hurried up toward the house." And here is where Jess makes a willful change — a decision to no longer be bound by his distracted parents or by the teachers in the school, but to embrace the people in his life who seem to be interested in other aspects of him than in how well he's milking the cow: not only his "hippie, peacenik" music teacher, Mrs. Edmunds, with whom he's been in love for ages despite the scorn of the school for her and her hippie pants and makeup, but Leslie herself. This happens, appropriately enough, as they're singing "Free to Be You and Me" in class (and did you KNOW that those lyrics were by Bruce Hart of YA titan Bruce and Carol Hart fame, by the way?):
Caught in the pure delight of it, Jess turned and his eyes met Leslie's. He smiled at her. What the heck. There wasn't any reason he couldn't. What was he scared of anyhow? Lord. Sometimes he acted like the original yellow-belled sapsucker....He felt there in the teachers' room that it was the beginning of a new season in his life, and he chose deliberately to make it so.
And thus begins a friendship in which Jess finds a freedom to be himself he hasn't considered before, and Leslie finds a friend in the sea a school population with a knee-jerk scorn for girls who don't wear dresses, own TVs, or stand on the sidelines cheering during races. This friendship finds its apex in the imaginary world of Terabithia, an kingdom in the woods conceived by the visionary Leslie, reached only by a rope swinging across a river, located physically and philosophically just on the cusp of where Jess's fears begin:
There were parts of the woods that Jess did not like. Dark places where it was almost like being under water, but he didn't say so .... Jess agreed quickly, relieved there was no need to plunge deeper into the woods. He would take her there, of course, for he wasn't such a coward that he would mind a little exploring now and then further in amongst the ever-darkening columns of the tall pins. But as a regular thing, as a permanent place, this is where he would choose to be... ... there in the shadowy light of the stronghold everything seemed possible. Between the two of them they owned the world and no enemy, Gary Fulcher, Wanda Kay Moore, Janice Avery, Jess's own fears and insuffiencies, nor any of the foes whom Leslie imagined attacking Terabithia, could ever really defeat them.
As has often happened when I'm rereading the novels in the 1970s period, I'm struck by how the class distinctions are far more explicit than I noticed as a child. Take, for instance, the Burkes, whose world cannot be further than Jess's and those in the town, a world of milking, hard-earned dollars, canning, trucking, beating your children, then dressing up for church on Sunday:
Leslie's parents were young, with straight white teeth and lots of hair-both of them. Leslie called them Judy and Bill, which bothered Jess more than he wanted it to. It was none of his business what Leslie called her parents. But he just couldn't get used to it. Both of the Burkes were writers. Mrs. Burke wrote novels and, according to Leslie, was more famous than Mr. Burke, who wrote about politics. It was really something to see the shelf that had their books on it. Mrs. Burke was "Judith Hancock" on the cover, which thre you at first, but then if you looked on the back, there was her picture looking very young and serious. Mr. Burke was going back and forth to Washington to finish a book he was working on with someone else, but he had promised Leslie that after Christmas he would stay home and fix up the house and plant his gaden and listen to music and read books out loud and write only in his spare time. They didn't look like Jess's idea of rich, but even he could tell that the jeans they wore had not come off the counter at Newberry's. There was no TV at the Burkes', but there were mountains of records and a stereo set that looked like something off Star Trek. And although their car was small and dusty, it was Italian and looked expensive too. They were always nice to Jess when he went over, but then they would suddenly begin talking about French politics or string quartets (which at first he thought was a square box made of string), or how to save timber wolves or redwoods or singing whales, and he was scared to open his mouth and show once and for all how dumb he was.
But what's interesting to me now is how, especially after the tragedy of Leslie's death, Paterson refuses to judge either, despite the family's differences. (I think there must be a hint of the Patersons themselves in there.) Yes, the Burkes with their Italian car, their love of books and art and all that is beautiful and deeply thought, the Burkes who are not ashamed to paint their living room gold, are a revelation to Jess, but then, so is the kindness of his own parents in the face of Leslie's death— his mother making him pancakes and refusing to allow his sisters to torment him, and his father reassuring him, albeit roughly, that whatever his mean older sister says, Leslie didn't need to be baptized to be all right in the afterlife. ("Lord, boy, don't be a fool. God ain't gonna send any little girls to hell.") One of the book's beautiful, delicate illustrations of Jess's father carrying him home (does ANY book besides this and "A Taste of Blackberries" have more weep-inducing artwork?) showcases the stability and love Jess doesn't realize he has at his own disposal at home, as well: Bridge To Terabithia: Troubling The WatersLeslie, who is unafraid of scuba-diving, who is not afraid of the dark woods, of the world of imagination, of striding out on the edge, distant and alone, does die because she's unafraid. But she's also given Jess life:
He thought about it all day, how before Leslie came, he had been a nothing—a stupid, weird kid who drew funny pictures and chased around a cow field trying to act big—trying to hid a whole mob of foolish little fears running wild in his gut. Leslie was more than his friend. She was his other, more exciting self-his way to Terabithia and all the worlds beyond.
But Jess has also learned something very important — that Leslie was scared too. Rescuing his sister May Belle from the same river in which Leslie drowned, he forgives himself for not saving Leslie and for being too cowardly to be there for her the day she died.
Everybody gets scared sometimes, May Belle. You don't have to be ashamed." He saw a flash of Leslie's eyes as she was going in to the girls' room to see Janice Avery. "Everybody gets scared."
After Leslie's death, the bridge Jess builds to cross the river into Terabithia isn't only to protect anyone else from falling into the river and drowning. It's to make the leap he's made — into a world of art, imagination, life beyond his small town — safe for anyone else who's afraid. • • • • • • Hello, Plotfindrelles! We are on hiatus this week. The answers to all of your burning questions and the opportunity to answer still more burning questions will return, retrospectively, next Friday, when we tackle Beverly Cleary's Sister of the Bride. Also: Christopher Pike. Remember Me. GOT IT GOT IT GOT IT; LOOK OUT FOR IT. Happy rereading! Bridge To Terabithia Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag] Earlier: Flowers In The Attic: He Ain't Sexy, He's My BrotherA Little Princess: A Reversal Of Four BunsTiger Eyes: Cuando Los Lagartijos CorrenHomecoming: A Dicey ProspectGo Ask Alice: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
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Happy Endings Are All Alike: The Price Of Fault
The Pigman: A Day No Friends Would Die
Julie Of The Wolves: The Call Of The Wild
Deenie: Brace Yourself
A Wrinkle In Time: Quit Tesseracting Up
Love Is One Of The Choices: No, Not That 'Sex And The City'
The Girl With The Silver Eyes: Little Pitchers Have Big Pharma
Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself: Springtime For Hitler, Part II
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From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: City Of Angels
A Gift Of Magic: Totally Psyched
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The Secret Garden: Still No Idea What A Missel Thrush Is
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The Cat Ate My Gymsuit: A Pocket Full Of Orange Pits
The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
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Jacob Have I Loved: Oh, Who Am I Kidding, I Reread This Book Once A Week
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My Darling, My Hamburger: I Will Gladly Pay You Tomorrow For A D&C Today
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Island Of The Blue Dolphins: I'm A Cormorant And I Don't Care
Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die