At one point after the movie My Girl came out, I heard a radio announcer quip that for him the movie was just so much more enjoyable after Macaulay Culkin’s character died. I don’t think anyone who reads Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terebithia, which won the Newbery Medal in 1978, will be inclined to say that of the death of a child character in the book. I’ve read Bridge to Terebithia twice, and the second reading was almost harder to bear because even pre-tragedy I felt such a sick dread of the passages that lay ahead. Paterson wrote the book after her son David's eight-year-old friend Lisa was struck and killed by lighting. David Paterson is now an adult and married with children of his own, but still finds Bridge to Terebithia difficult to read. I am not surprised. Bridge to Terebithia will never become one of the books I read and reread because it tears me up — and all my childhood friends are alive and kicking and posting to Facebook.com.
The main character, Jess Aarons, is a ten-year-old farm boy who feels, and indeed really is, something of a thwarted misfit in his own life. He has a passion for drawing and painting and dislikes sports, which doesn’t exactly win him a lot of respect among the other boys at his rural school. There seems to be no art instruction whatsoever at his school (was this really ever the case in public schools during the seventies?) and the only teacher who doesn’t discourage him by telling him not to waste time or paper is the music teacher, with whom Jess is secretly in love.
At home Jess is the only boy of five children. One of best things about Bridge to Terebithia is the Aarons family dynamic. Jess’s four sisters are especially well drawn. We can completely understand and sympathize with Jess’s irritation with his sisters, and with how they make him feel marginalized in his own family, but at the same time see that they seem like perfectly ordinary girls with both good and bad qualities. Jess’s older sisters, the high-school-aged Ellie and Rhonda, fuss a lot about wanting clothes and makeup, shirk their share of the chores, and complain about Jess being smelly. Four-year-old Joyce Ann throws a lot of tantrums as a way of holding her own with her much older siblings. Jess likes six-year-old May Belle, who adores him and shows promise of developing into a good companion for him a few years down the road, but in the meantime he doesn’t always want her tagging around after him.
Jess’s mother and father are trying to raise too many children on too little money. Under the stress of this his mother becomes sharp and quick-tempered, and his father’s long work hours mean he is absent much of the time, and absent-minded when physically present. They’re too overworked to have much time or energy to cater to Jess’s non-physical needs, and on many days their efforts to communicate with him consist of their asking if he’s done the milking yet. Jess must draw in spare moments, and in his room, with the door shut, because his mother considers it a waste of time and his father doesn’t think it a suitably masculine activity for his only son.
In an effort to carve out a better place for himself in his world, Jess spends all the early morning hours of the summer between fourth and fifth grade in the cow pasture, training himself to run. He dreams of winning the lunchtime races at school and thinks if he can become the fastest runner he can win the liking and respect of the other kids and of his family. And then on the first day of school his new neighbour, Leslie Burke, shows up and wins all the races easily. But Jess soon gets over this disappointment because something better arrives on its heels.
Leslie Burke is another especially well-done element in this novel. Paterson has managed to create a little girl who is intelligent and imaginative without being precious. I don’t think Paterson did quite as well with Leslie’s parents. Judy and Bill Burke are successful and well-to-do writers who have moved to a ramshackle farmhouse in the country to “reassess their value structure”. Yes, they use those words. Their daughter calls them by their first names, and they have “a lot of hair”, stacks of records and books but no television set, speak French and talk a lot about world issues and drive a small, dusty yet expensive car. In thinking over Paterson’s characterization of the Burkes I thought the only thing missing was the yogurt, and then while paging through the book I came across the fact that Leslie had yogurt in her lunchbox for her first day at school. But then I’m reminded of someone I knew who used to criticize her sister for “being cliché” because her sister wore her hair long and parted in the middle, scorned makeup, sported tie-dyed clothing, ate health food, and visited a naturopath, as though owning a house in the suburbs, wearing sweaters with cats on them, and doing counted cross stitch projects were any more original, or as though anyone’s life is. By the same token Jess’ family, with their double negatives, double names and beaten-up pick up truck are just as cliché as the Burkes in superficial terms, but we see more of them and get to observe the inner workings of their family in a much more intimate way, and so they transcend the material features of their lives and seem much more real. We don’t see enough of the Burkes, and they seem too idealized, to come across as convincing.
But the same cannot be said of Leslie, though we don’t get to know her nearly as well as Jess. Leslie’s parents treat her more as a companion than as a child, and this combined with her own considerable natural aptitude has made her very advanced intellectually. She does brilliant schoolwork, and is a gifted athlete, and in general is the kind of child adults cherish. But we get to see how these very qualities make her an outcast at school, where the other children show the intolerance of difference that is usual in homogenous kid culture. The boys at school might have come to accept that a girl wants to run in their recess races, but they can’t adjust to the fact that she wins every race so easily that it takes all the suspense out of it. The girls don’t care for the fact that Leslie wears tank tops and cut-offs and looks like a boy. And the Burkes’ lack of a TV demolishes whatever social prospects Leslie might have had left.
Jess and Leslie become friends partly through proximity and self-preservation, but their friendship soon becomes more about their natural affinity. Leslie and Jess create a magical imaginary kingdom called Terebithia, and build a “castle stronghold” (which to adult eyes is a lean-to) in the woods, and stock it with water, nails and elastics, and crackers and dried fruit in case of siege. Together they are king and queen, rulers of Terebithia, and Jess discovers both the transforming and sustaining powers of friendship and imagination. Leslie, being quite a well-balanced girl, has no inclination to stay in Terebithia all the time, and draws Jess out by talking to him about current events, concocting and enacting a diabolically elegant plan of revenge for a mean seventh grade girl who steals May Belle’s Twinkies – and by later showing compassion for the seventh grader. Jess’s friendship with Leslie does so much for him he doesn’t care what anyone at school or home says about him hanging around with a girl. I find it more than a bit of a stretch that a 10-year-old farm boy would say that he can’t capture “the poetry of the trees” in his drawings, but at the same time it was just the kind of thing he could say to Leslie knowing that she would understand. And when tragedy strikes, Jess, with all his grief, finds his friendship with Leslie has given him what he needs to go on. The adults of his world prove that they are perfectly capable of being sensitive to his needs when roused from their own concerns, and Jess is able to respond to them, and to begin to see that May Belle needs his friendship as much as he ever needed Leslie’s.
I’ve read two of Katherine Paterson’s other novels: The Great Gilly Hopkins (which was a Newbery Honor Book in 1979), and Jacob Have I Loved (for which I have very mixed feelings, but which I’ll be reviewing sooner or later because it won the Newbery in 1981). Although all involve significant character growth, I wouldn’t call any of them coming-of-age novels. In all these three books Paterson’s characters grapple with very grim and rather grown-up issues. The problems they deal with and the emotions they feel are not those which they will laugh at in 20 years’ time. When Jess’s father says to his grieving son, “Hell, ain’t it?” he is relating to him not as father to child but as one human being to another, and his few words contain the recognition that such things keep happening to you and tearing you up all your life, and that they cannot be fixed, only endured. Paterson has made her books about universal human experience rather than about definitively childhood experience, and has laced her work with the kind of rock-bottom honesty that is the best ground on which to meet grief. And it is exactly these qualities that makes her novels both so difficult and so powerful to read.