Bridge to Terabithia

by Katherine Paterson

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Setting

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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.

Literary Qualities

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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 Belle and even, to a lesser extent, Jess's parents, who momentarily escape the trap of respectability and social anxiety to deal with Jess's and the Burkes' grief. Parallels may be drawn between Leslie's death and Christ's crucifixion. Leslie says to Jess after the Easter service about the Christ story, "You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don't have to believe it, and I think it's beautiful." By combining the strengths of the novel and romance forms, Paterson creates true and virtuous action.

Among the strengths of Paterson's writings is her strong sense of plot. Leslie's accidental death is something of an exception because it is not the logical consequence of the events that have preceded it; the reader has no sense that it is inevitable. Instead, Paterson uses symbolic imagery to foreshadow Leslie's death. The narrative frequently refers to waterÂthe speed of the creek, Leslie's essay on scuba diving, the fear in Jess that Leslie's fearlessness inspires. Furthermore, the death is necessary in that the other characters' growth depends on it. Paterson's masterful character development and skillful use of symbolism make the novel's plot ring true.

Social Sensitivity

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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.

For Further Reference

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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 Paterson." Language Arts 58 (February 1981): 189-196. A revealing interview with Paterson in which she discusses her varying styles and ethical aims in fiction writing.

Namovicz, Gene Inyart. "Katherine Paterson." Horn Book 57 (August 1981): 394-399. Namovicz, a writer and friend of Paterson, presents an interesting biographical portrait.

Paterson, Katherine. Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. New York: Elsevier/Nelson, 1981. An extremely useful collection containing reviews of other authors' work, critical essays on aspects of writing for children, autobiographical essays, and acceptance speeches for the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal.

"Sounds in the Heart." Horn Book 57 (December 1981): 694-702. This may be Paterson's most revealing self-portrait to date, giving the best clues to her identity as a person and as a writer.

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