Set in the mid- 1970s, shortly after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, most of the action in this novel occurs in rural Virginia. Jess's father cannot support his large family in this depressed area and moves to Washington to earn extra money. The Burkes, a wealthy family from Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, have moved to a farm to reassess their "value structure." Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke meet at Lark Creek Elementary School, and despite dissimilar backgrounds and early tension, become close friends. Apart from the farm, the school, and Washington, D.C., the imaginary Terabithia that Jess and Leslie create in the woods becomes an important setting in which the characters reveal their pain and express their dreams.
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Bridge to Terabithia alludes to many other literary works, largely through Leslie and Jess's conversations. Leslie describes Melville's Moby Dick and C. S. Lewis's world of Narnia, and she allows Jess to borrow books she cares for, such as Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three. Leslie and Jess model their imaginary Terabithia after Lewis's Narnia, and the characters particularly enjoy fantasy and romance. Despite its believable characters and generally probable situations, Bridge to Terabithia contains a buried romance structure, a heroic quest and psychological regeneration for the hero.
Like most fantasies and romances, Bridge to Terabithia is highly symbolic. Leslie and Jess cross water to enter Terabithia, an act that Swiss psychologist Carl Jung has identified in Man and His Symbols as "a frequent symbolic image for a fundamental change of attitude." While in Terabithia, Leslie and Jess engage in heroic role-playing that has repercussions for them in the real world, as when the two defend the "maiden" May Belle from the "dragon" Janice Avery. Because of their role-playing, Leslie and Jess's sense of responsibility triumphs over their fear of Janice.
Even Leslie's sudden death is symbolic. Preceded by ceremonies performed to stop the rain, her death symbolizes rebirth through death, not just for Jess, who must now go into Terabithia alone and create the world in which he wishes to live, but for May...
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Bridge to Terabithia provides a sensitive treatment of death. While Paterson's Christian beliefs influence her approach to this subject, the novel's symbolic and ethical systems are broad enough that they should not prove controversial. The novel acknowledges that children often have to face life's harsh realities and serves as a primer on grieving. It is a positive portrayal of characters dealing with the sense of loss, anger, and loneliness that follows the death of a loved one.
Also valuable is the novel's depiction of the rural poor and day-to-day farm life. Paterson contrasts the Aaron family's hardships with a humorous look at the liberal, well-intentioned Burke family's attempt to absorb rural virtues without facing the financial difficulties or the hard physical labor that characterize their neighbors' lives. The portrait of Janice Avery elucidates the plight of child abuse victims. The reader sees Janice's loyalty to a father who beats her, her shame in having revealed his crime, and the frustration that leads her to abuse young children in much the same way that she has been abused.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Jess's irritation with his four sisters, his conflicts with his short-tempered mother, and his defeat in the race for which he trained all summer might have prevented his friendship with Leslie. How would you account for the growth of their friendship?
2. How does Terabithia aid Jess and Leslie in their developing friendship? What do they bring to their imaginary land, and what do they gain from it?
3. Janice Avery is feared by Jess and Leslie. How just and how effective is the revenge that Jess and Leslie seek against Janice for her theft from May Belle?
4. What provokes Jess and Leslie to befriend Janice when they find her crying?
5. What is unsatisfying about Jess's relationship to his parents? Who, if anyone, is at fault for this? What needs to be done to improve the relationship? Does this happen in the novel?
6. What is unsatisfying about Leslie's relationship to her parents? Who, if anyone, is at fault for this? What needs to be done to improve the relationship?
7. What are Jess's immediate reactions to Leslie's death? How normal are they? What would happen if he did not go through them?
8. What does it mean to Jess when he makes the funeral wreath in Leslie's memory? What does his experience with May Belle over the creek mean to him? What guilt and what fear does Jess overcome in his rescue of May Belle? Why and for whom does Jess build the bridge into Terabithia? How does...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Katherine Paterson likes novels with strong plots. She says, "As burdensome as the limitation of plot may seem to be, it is not one I'm willing to circumvent. I simply don't like novels that aren't going anywhere, and I can't imagine many readers who do." Define plot and discuss whether Bridge to Terabithia has an effective plot. Be sure to consider the accidental death of Leslie in this context.
2. Paterson sees herself writing novels, yet she has a preference for fantasies and romances. Define each form and discuss Bridge to Terabithia as a novel or a romance.
3. Although the narrator of the novel is third-person, the narrator stays close to the consciousness of Jess throughout the action. This proves to be a difficult strategy of telling the story in the period immediately following Jess's discovery of Leslie's death. How does Paterson describe Jess's reactions when he seems to be in a state of shock? Describe and evaluate the effectiveness of this narrative technique.
4. Jess's mother and Janice Avery are unsympathetic characters. How would you explain what seem to be their harsh actions? Compare the two characters.
5. Janice Avery provides a classic example of child abuse. After researching this topic by finding articles in The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, describe the causes and effects of child abuse and evaluate Paterson's portrayal of this problem. Does Paterson see any...
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The Paterson novel most similar to Bridge to Terabithia is Jacob Have I Loved. Set on an island on the Chesapeake Bay, it presents the relationships of twin sisters, Caroline and Louise Bradshaw, with their family and friends. The elder Bradshaws' apparent preference for Caroline over Louise mirrors Jess's mother's seeming favoritism toward her older daughters. Despite Louise's anger and resentment, Jacob Have I Loved contains a gentleness and a rich symbolic narrative reminiscent of Bridge to Terabithia.
Paterson has written four historical novels, three set in Japan and one set in China. In each of these novels, Paterson tells a good fictional story while accurately recreating a historical period or event. The Master Puppeteer shares certain features with Bridge to Terabithia; the friendship, for instance, of Kinski and Jiro resembles that of Leslie and Jess, and the difficulties in parent-child relationships can be seen in Kinski's and Jiro's conflicts with their parents.
The Great Gilly Hopkins, set in Maryland, also deals with troubles between parents and children, but Gilly's conflicts involve her foster family and her hunger for recognition from the ideal mother of her imagination who in reality rejected her. Gilly, however, bears a greater resemblance to a Judy Blume character than to the characters in Bridge to Terabithia.
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For Further Reference
Bell, Anthea. "A Case of Commitment." Signal 38 (May 1982): 73-81. An excellent critical overview of Paterson's work, particularly from a religious perspective.
Haskell, Ann. "Talk with a Winner." New York Times Book Review (April 26, 1981): 52, 67. A good short biographical portrait of Paterson with some critical commentary.
Huse, Nancy. "Katherine Paterson's Ultimate Realism." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9 (Fall 1984): 99-101. This excellent article shows how Paterson's novels "combine the accuracy and literal truthfulness expected of realism with another kind of power usually associated with ethics and religion."
Jones, Linda T. "Profile: Katherine...
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