An Awakening of Character
Bridge to Terabithia tells of the character growth of ten year old Jess. Until Leslie arrives he is an ordinary honest boy wrestling with the social and moral muddle one might expect among the students of a small town grade school. This year Jess figures he will be the fastest runner in grade five. On his own, he trains each summer day to be sure he will be tops. One day, he notices that a new family, with a daughter named Leslie, has moved onto the farm property next door.
On race day at school, through a twist of boyhood challenges, Leslie ends up competing against Jess in one of the race heats. To his embarrassment, she thoroughly beats him and moves up to the finals. When the next most likely winner objects to racing against a girl, Jess scorns him. This rightfully wins Leslie’s respect and attention, but it’s a bit embarrassing for a boy. Nonetheless, after the school bus dropped them off at their stop, Jess noticed,
- “She ran as though it was her nature. It reminded him of the flight of wild ducks in autumn. So smooth. The word “beautiful” came to his mind, but he shook it away and hurried up toward the house.“
Soon we grasp that Leslie is an unusually bright girl that does not fit with the cliquey behavior of the other girls. She and Jess become friends, and decide to spend an afternoon together playing.
At the back of her farm, by the woods, is an old dry creek bed. As they swing from one bank to the other by an old rope, Leslie decides they should have their own special, secret place. It would be a Narnia-like world that she called Terabithia. She and Jess would be its rulers and defenders.
Being the ruler of a whole Kingdom, particularly with Leslie, gives Jess a sense of importance he had not expected. The author keeps us aware of their imaginary, Terabithia adventures but focuses more on their escapades at school. We see Jess and Leslie’s sense of justice in dealing with the good and the bad in other students. Importantly, Jess’s sense of self-worth grows, not only at school but in the special presence of Leslie as co-rulers of Terabithia.
The rest of the school, his parents and siblings, only saw a boy befriending some girl. To them this was an idle distraction, even a nuisance. Yet Jess’s grasp of Leslie’s character involves an element that the last lines of the story suggest the author has even overlooked.
Unfortunately, perhaps because it is ‘catchy press’, the media and reviewers emphasize a tragedy in the story that nearly wrecks Jess’s new found life. Paterson’s presentation of his confusion and pain is appropriate and feels real. The literary importance of the tragedy is that it serves to emphasize to the reader the powerful values Jess discovered in himself, through Leslie. It is in these values that the name Terabithia acquires significance.
Paterson thought she made up the name “Terabithia”, but realized later that there was an island in The Chronicles of Narnia called “Terebinthia” (see her explanation). Perhaps it would have been more exciting if Paterson had chosen “Terabithia” deliberately: using the root words terra and bithia. Terra refers to “land”, while Bithia means “Pharaoh’s daughter”, specifically referring to the young woman who rescued baby Moses from the Nile River. Bithia made it possible for him to live as Egyptian royalty rather than as a slave.
In Bridge to Terabithia, Leslie may have invented an imaginary land, but her effect on Jess’s life was as a bridge drawing him to an entirely different World. She was a bridge toward a new sense of self and sense of life. Like the biblical Bithia, she pulled him away from one lifelong direction toward another –toward a different ‘land’.
In the denouement of the story, Paterson becomes somewhat didactic in explaining Jess’s development: “It was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king…. Wasn’t the king the best you could be?” And, Moses became the leader of the Israelites leaving Egypt.
Unfortunately she explicitly puts Jess’s character development in terms of lending and payback, as a matter of debt:
- “It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.”
Consciously adopted ideas and character are understandings that develop in a person’s mind through real world observation –at times of people– and experience. They are not material goods being sent out on loan. Jess’s debt of justice, if any were to be named, is to Leslie, not to others—or “the world”.
Jess should be proud, not only for having seen the values Leslie stood by and represented, but for seeing them where others could not. More importantly, he made them his own. That Jess works to show the same values to his closest sibling is not a matter of “pay back”, it was his way of putting the very values he chose to own, into action. It was his very personal act of spiritual benevolence to his sister, and his expression of justice to Leslie.
The theme of Terabithia is too abstract for the younger end of the publisher’s targeted age group (10 & up). Because the day to day school events are not gripping enough to sustain interest many young readers will find the story boring. On the other hand a twelve year old that enjoys reading about interactions between people their own age will love it. Though they are still likely to miss the theme. That theme is a wonderful message adult readers will enjoy, and it perhaps explains why Terabithia received a Newbery Medal. ValuedMinds recommends this book to those who are better able to sustain their attention and grasp abstract ideas.
[Re: Bridge to Terabithia, the movie. The movie progressively takes elements of Jess and Leslie's fantasy and makes them real, until they are actually combating strange creatures. Unfortunately, the brought-to-life fantasy elements of the movie suggest the ultimate value is the fantasy, rather than the real-world lesson Jess experiences about character and love.]