Sunday, January 4, 2009

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Warning: It is impossible to really comment on this book without major spoilers.

I remembered this book being a lot more powerful than it is. When I read as a child that Leslie drowns, I was floored--a book I had thought was one way turned out to be very much different. This is a difficult trick to pull off because the very nature of popular media is to reveal secrets before you read the book or watch the movie--how many of had some jerk tell you the ending of The Sixth Sense before you saw it? Even trickier, I think, is when the game-changer occurs in the middle of the work, like Coetzee's Disgrace or the film In the Bedroom.

I grew up respecting Bridge to Terabithia because I thought it reflected accurately what the death of a young friend is like--it is sudden, unexpected, and changes the way you experience things from then on and the things that you experienced before. And so I was prepared to sing the praises of this book even though the writing was stilted, the characters severely underwritten, and the key scenes of the book--where Jesse and Leslie pretend to be the King and Queen of Terabithia--to be lacking in focus and imagination. But I think this is the first time that I changed my mind about a book because of one sentence--Jesse is shocked that Leslie does not really believe in God and says, "But Leslie, what if you die?"

Blergh! I hope that when I teach my students about foreshadowing they understand it better than I did, because when I read it for the first time I must have elided right over that big freaking Nostradamus right there. The uppercut I respected really turned out to be a pulled punch; Paterson makes sure that to a careful reader Leslie's death is anything but a surprise and therefore loses all the power of its unexpectedness.

To compound matters, the patness of the ending--in which Jesse finds consolation by making his little sister Queen of Terabithia--seems, as in Tuck Everlasting, to dismiss the longevity of grief and humanity's long-standing fear of death. Is this desirable in a children's book? I don't know; you might argue that readers of this age have too much to worry about without being made to understand the severity and profundity of death. On the other hand, do these books really provide a map for recovery when a child faces the death of a loved one? Or might they be fundamentally dishonest, and cause a child to wonder what's wrong with him or her, for whom it is such a struggle?

Without the perspective of a child to rely on, I find these difficult questions to answer. Can you think of a book for kids that approaches death more honestly?

13 comments:

Amanda said...

I don't remember being much affected by this book when I read it as a kid - I think I was too young to fully appreciate it - but I reread it a couple years ago, and thought it was very powerful. I actually thought it was one of the only honest portrayals of death in children's books that I've read. So many stories allow something beautiful to happen in order to lessen the child's suffering, yet in this one, his grief isn't so easily resolved. Even in bringing in his sister, he was just trying to cope, and it didn't feel like he was putting grief behind him, to me at least. I liked that it ended on that note of not-quite-right, like nothing would be truly settled for a long time.

Christopher said...

Oh, I totally got a different feeling from the ending. I think it was probably meant to be more like you say, but it struck me as way to cavalier and easy.

Christopher said...

PS You should totally do this this year.

Amanda said...

Do you mean the 50 books project thing?

Christopher said...

That is exactly what I mean.

Christopher said...

Actually, I just saw your blog. You have more people than we do and that makes me sad. But happy for you!

Amanda said...

We have more people, but we have a lower goal, too. It probably evens out when it comes to posting.

I don't mind cross-posting, if you really want me to participate. Fair warning, my goal is 100 books in 2009...

Amanda said...

You also might be happy to know that finding your blog in April is what inspired me to create mine. I didn't know how to contact the group about possibly joining, plus it was mid-year, so I got together with friends and we made our own. Some are more serious about it than others.

Christopher said...

Nah, I don't think there's any need for that. But 100--wow.

Amanda said...

Yeah, we'll see if I can do it. I managed 98 in 2008, but a couple of those were a little young.

Nihil Novum said...

Geez, 100?

But yeah, the more the merrier.

Amanda said...

Yeah, that's kind of what happens when you're a stay at home mom/writer whose kids all start going to school. The OCD doesn't help. ;)

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