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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,136 words.)