For a long long time, I had many many classic books on my To Read Someday List.
And then I collide with Bridge of Terabithia.
And I fall instantly in love.
SPOILERS to follow on the ideas the book presents.
Bridge to Terabithia is a classic children’s book written by Katherine Paterson in 1977. The story, which came out of an event that troubled her son, won awards and is constantly censored. We start with Jesse Aarons, a lonely boy going into the fifth grade who trains and trains on the family farm to be fast enough to win a school footrace. This is very very important and a rather prestigious honour to win this unofficial prize. While running he meets the new neighbour, a tomboy city girl who is also in the fifth grade, Leslie Burke.
Jesse is slow to welcome Leslie, and Leslie disrupts the schoolyard dynamic when she, a girl, enters the footrace and wins. This chaos disturbs Jesse, who hides much from his large poor family including his artistic ability, but he overcomes and Leslie, who is a well read only child from a family with money, becomes a good friend. A development that causes ripples in many circles.
Leslie and Jesse proceed to have many dramas unfold around them, which leads to many thoughts and feelings being experienced and discussed, and the two learning of the differences that exist between them. Some of this occurs when the pair go adventuring into a secluded wooded area, just pass a creek, nearby their homes.
This land of playing and talking and make believe and planning and friendship is christened Terabithia.
And it becomes their secret refuge.
All until the massive emotional ending, when it becomes something else.
Bridge to Terabithia is a truly excellent story that packs a huge wallop, one that stays with you long after the final page. Add to that the multiple themes and concepts that are threaded expertly throughout the novel by Paterson.
Terabithia clearly takes place in the early 1970’s in a conservative small town where nothing seems to ever change. Little bits and pieces are sprinkled around to cement this notion, including how Jesse describes the music teacher, Miss Edmunds, who amazingly wears pants and sings folk songs, and he likes so much she is one of the few who know his drawing skills. This unconventional aspect is noticed but not commented on too much, but the discussions that spring out of Leslie coming to Jesse’s church for a visit are fascinating and show how the friends view the world, all shaped by their upbringings and environment. Another small chunk is the kerfuffle Leslie causes when she reveals to the class the fact that her family has no television set. And the passage involving spanking versus hitting kids is short but truthful to the cultures shown. So many moving parts pop up and immerse the reader in the setting, making it so easy to understand how Jesse and Leslie’s friendship would sprout conversation.
Now most would say the religious discussions alone, and the emotional ending, are the reasons so many small minded people want to ban Terabithia, but I have a different theory, one shared by many.
To me it is obvious that Jesse is gay and Leslie is lesbian.
It is never stated, nor do the kids ever express themselves in his matter, and I think only Leslie is worldly enough to even know or understand the concept, but this feels present to me right from the start. Neither Leslie and Jesse show any romantic feelings towards each other, which is not definitive of this of course, and also very refreshing to treat male and female characters as friends and not potential romantic interests, but you also get the idea they have no feelings towards almost anyone else as well.
And the almost part is what brings further complexity to Terabithia, and reinforces the LGBTQ theme showcased in the tine and place. Jesse has what seems like a crush on the pants wearing music teacher, the above mentioned Miss Edmunds, but it really is admiration for an adult who gets him and his art and encourages him. She is noticeably different and is fine with it, and Jesse longs to be this. His desire at the start of Terabithia to win the footrace was too fit in, and that was disrupted by Leslie being Leslie. Which brings up the idea that maybe Leslie does know she is different from the town norm, but because of her liberal big city upbringing with open parents, she is more at ease. This might be why Leslie wants to help and understand notorious school bully Janice Avery, even after she and Jesse help orchestrate part of her pain. Maybe possibly, once Leslie realizes the full story of Janice, her feelings towards the older girl changed. Some might call this a stretch, but so many things about Terabithia have such power and chemistry and reasoning behind them, that the Janice subplot just leads me in that direction.
Even if Paterson never meant this idea, Jesse and Leslie are excellent living characters who have an excellent wonderful friendship. Jesse grows massively from all aspects of his knowing Leslie, and Leslie benefits immensely from teaching Jesse about the wider world.
The two learn about life and God and living, both in their real world of 1970’s small town and in their fantasy woodland existence in Terabithia. They have truly wonderful and heartbreaking journeys, both together and apart.
And I loved every minute with Leslie and Jesse.
…is currently reading Star Trek Captain’s Peril by Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens and William Shatner. Googliebear picked this one for me!
P.S. Please avoid the terrible movie from a few years ago. So much is wrong with that film, far too many points to list. Just don’t.