I wanted to like this book. I really did. You can already guess what I’m going to say next: I didn’t.
[I’d say this review is spoiler-free, but I won’t guarantee that you won’t find anything you would consider a spoiler.]
Jess Aarons’ greatest ambition is to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. He’s been practicing all summer and can’t wait to see his classmates’ faces when he beats them all. But on the first day of school, a new girl boldly crosses over to the boys’ side of the playground and outruns everyone.
That’s not a very promising beginning for a friendship, but Jess and Leslie Burke become inseparable. Leslie has imagination. Together, she and Jess create Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods where the two of them reign as king and queen, and their imaginations set the only limits. Then one morning a terrible tragedy occurs. Only when Jess is able to come to grips with this tragedy does he finally understand the strength and courage Leslie has given him.
This summary from the back of the book perfectly describes the novel I expected to read when I picked up ‘The Bridge to Terabithia’. Unfortunately those expectations were disappointed.
While I think Paterson did a good job portraying their friendship and their visits to Terabithia, I’m missing the part where Jess slowly gains that strength and courage through Leslie and, later, the understanding that the summary is talking about.
Of course Paterson does give us an insight into Jess’s newfound wisdom at the end. I just don’t know where it came from. Said passage hit me completely out of the blue because I don’t see any learning process that leads up to and fits the transformation described there.
To be quite honest though, it’s also not even clear to me what this “strength and courage” actually consists of. The strength and courage to be himself? To admit his fears and face them? No matter from which angle I try to look at it, it’s lacking coherence.
Then there’s the matter of imagination and creativity in the story. At first glance it seems imagination and creativity are shown to be precious and valuable things. But, looking at the ending again, I’m not so sure anymore. Drawing, an activity that obviously builds on imagination and creativity, doesn’t seem to be regarded as a worthwhile hobby there and Terabithia, land of creative imagination, is a place you apparently have to move out and on from at the ripe old age of ten.
I clearly don’t approve of that message and unfortunately it wasn’t the only one I found problematic.
While I do realize that it’s been a while since the book has been written and maybe things were still a bit different back then, there are certain things that I just cannot ignore.
For one thing, the portrayal of female characters in the novel leaves a bitter taste with me. (The only two women that are portrayed in a positive light are also described as “different” from women in general or not recognized as women by other characters in the novel at all.)
The second thing is the way violence is dealt with. There are at least two instances where characters experience violence and none of them receive help or even an apology. On the contrary, the common consensus (in Jesse Aarons’ world) seems to be that the best way to handle the situation is to keep quiet about it and pretend it’s not there.
I think we can all agree that this is far from a great message to send to children. Or anyone, really.
To make up for the stream of negativity a little bit I will conclude this by saying that one thing I really enjoyed was the symbolism of the building of the bridge.
Overall, I was left with the feeling that Katherine Paterson meant to write the novel I hoped ‘The Bridge to Terabithia’ would be and I honestly appreciate what (I think) she was trying to do there.
For me personally though, she just didn’t quite succeed in her attempt.
Haven’t read it yet? Don’t let this review keep you from doing that 🙂