Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Review: Bridge to Terabithia

The movie to this book was released recently, and a tidbit of research into what it was about in order to decide if I should take my 4 year old to it left me with the desire to read this particular book.

Also of particular note is that this is a Newberry Award winning book. For those that don't know, the Newberry is an annual award to a children's book for the most distinguished contribution to American Literature for Children. Personally, I'm still irked that the Harry Potter series does not have one of those golden seals on their cover. After all, that book series has done more for children literature (mainly by getting children to read) than anything else recently.

But that's neither here nor there, so on with the review.

Bridge to Terabithia was written by Katherine Paterson in my birth year of 1977 (I'm assuming this because that's the earliest copyright date in this edition). I have an illustrated edition (and by "have" I currently mean I checked out of the library, and am basing my review on this particular copy-but I do intend upon getting a copy of this novel to read to my boys), that's in hard cover, running 128 pages. Illustrations are done by one Donna Diamond. It contains the following text as a blurb:

All summer, Jess pushed himself to be the fastest boy in the fifth grade, and when the year's first school-yard race was run, he was going to win. But his victory was stolen by a newcomer, by a girl, one who didn't even know enough to stay on the girl's side of the playground. Then, unexpectedly, Jess finds himself sticking up for Leslie, for the girl who breaks rules and wins races. The friendship between the two grows as Jess guides the city girl through the pitfalls of life in their small, rural town, and Leslie draws him into the world of imagination—a world of magic and ceremony called Terabithia. Here, Leslie and Jess rule supreme among the oaks and evergreens, safe from the bullies and ridicule of the mundane world. Safe until an unforeseen tragedy forces Jess to reign in Terabithia alone, and both worlds are forever changed.

In this poignant, beautifully rendered novel, Katherine Paterson weaves a powerful story of friendship and courage.

Okay, first off, the blurb gives away a major plot point of the story. While it does not come directly out and state "hey, this happens" the phrase "unforeseen tragedy forces Jess to reign in Terabithia alone" leaves little to the imagination. But beyond that, the blurb itself is not that bad, but it reads more like a short synopsis of the novel rather than a marketing blurb to get me to spend my hard-earned money on the book.

The plot is classic tragedy; one not that far off from the stuff found in the works of Shakespeare. Boy meets girl, they bond, death comes, and one must live on. It's a heart wrenching story, especially when you consider the simple fact that the protagonists are only 11 years old. Of course, it's in the power of that tragedy which the story and the plot work. It's the power of that tragedy which forces Jess to change and grow.

And speaking of Jess, since he is the POV character, he gets the majority of the character development here. He is the one that changes from the boy who was running scared to someone worthy to rule in Terabithia. Of course, like all sudden and startling shifts in POV, Jess does not like this, and when he is coming to terms with this change, he thinks some of the most powerful lines that I've read in many years:

He, Jess was the only one who really cared for Leslie. But Leslie had failed him. She went and died just when he needed her the most. She went and left him. She went swinging on that rope just to show him that she was no coward. So There, Jess Aarons. She was probably somewhere right now laughing at him. Making fun of him like he was Mrs. Myers. She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there—like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone.

I'm not sure why that resonated with me so well, but it describes perfectly how his POV shifts because of Leslie and what happens to her. It is not so much that she forces him to grow up, but she forces him to change. She introduces him to the world beyond the mundane chores and rote book learning of his previous life. She shows him the power of imagination and the beauty and innocence and magic inherent in this life.

On Leslie's side of things, I'm fairly certain she gets the short end of the stick in this novel. She's a city girl dumped into the country, where she constantly stumbles about, because of differences in what she knows, and where she now is. Yet, she is powerful in her own right for the knowledge, imagination and magic which she expels the same way most people exhale. Unfortunately, she is ultimately just a plot machine designed to push Jess along, to make him change, so she does not get to change that much herself. But it is a credit to Mrs. Paterson that she is able to weave so much life and vitality into a dues ex machina that this grizzled old reader actually cared for her.

The descriptions in the novel tended to be terse, and short. Oddly, we're given plenty of descriptions of the real world. We're told about the cherry tree and the rope. We're told about Jess' cow and her field. We're even told about the slates of wood nailed together to form a fort out in the middle of the woods.

What we're not told though is the other side of things. We're not told what the kids see while they're in the woods which make up the kingdom of Terabithia. We know from dialog (both Jess' internal thoughts and Jess and Leslie speaking) that they're imaging great and wonderful things, but those things are never shown. It's a subtle twist, and one that I can only assume the writer did so that the reader imagines what the kids are imagining.

Since this is an illustrated edition, I should probably mention them here. They are simple, grey tone illustrations, nothing spectacular, but they're not hideous modernistic interpretations of the story either. The problem with them is that for the most part, they seem lifeless. While they are all of equal quality, the most dynamic and most living illustrations are the last two (found in the chapters No! and Building the Bridge). These final two, display some of the most profound portions of the storyline, and while they contain hints of the static and lifelessness of the earlier illustrations, the content matter associated with them is powerful enough to breathe a hint of life into the pictures.

Themes are an interesting thing. Too often in today's literature we aren't given a theme. It's escapist fantasy where the heroes go through the motions to solve the problem of the day. Or it could be that I'm not reading deep enough into the stories, as the theme was quite obvious here: friendship and courage. Heck, they don't even try to hide it, and put it full on into the blurb.

The entire novel is about friendships and courage. Facing fears, whether it's standing up for someone, crossing a stick placed over a creek, or simply forgiving someone for dying, the subtle aspects of courage are as much tried and tested as the full on, in-your-face, Fear Factor style tests. The reason those tests works so well though, is because of the friendship built between Leslie and Jess.

Ultimately, I liked this story a whole lot. It is a quick read for an adult as I finished it in about 5 or 6 hours. It did come in at 128 pages, but there were a good dozen or so illustrations, some of which were full page, plus because this was a hardcover, and a juvenile book, its font size was slightly larger than an adult's novel. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say there are at most 45K words. Yet brevity notwithstanding, this is a great story, which is more important than word or page count any day of the week. After all, I'd rather spend my twenty bucks on a 128 page good story than a 500 page book which barely can be classified as the written word.

I think it might be because I can relate so well to the characters that I enjoyed this novel so much. I was one of those bright kids that was able to daydream during class and still get perfect grades. I was one of those kids who had their written work read to the class. I was one of those kids who spent more time drawing and reading than playing sports. I've always had a vibrant imagination, one that I have often wondered was not to vibrant, and too willing to impose itself upon my worldview. Yet my own personal problems with chronic daydreaming aside, the power of imagination is one that is not often pushed enough. It's not often given a chance to grow, especially in today's society where children who act different from some oddly defined norm, and pushed onto mind-altering prescriptions. Not that surprisingly, since a lot of the story revolves around awakening Jess' own imagination, there's a paragraph which sums this push for imagination perfectly:

And when he finished, he put flowers in her hair and led her across the bridge—the great bridge into Terabithia—which might look to someone with no magic in him like a few planks across a nearly dry gully.

Personally, I hope to never get so old and set in my ways, that I don't see the great bridge into Terabithia.

This book gets a 4 out of 4.


Thrawn said...

Excellent review, sir. I heard about the film adaptation last year, got the book at WalMart, and fell in love with the story. It's one of the few novels that made me cry in who knows how many years. The film is surprisingly close to the novel, though the previews were marketed towards the people coming out of Narnia and Tolkien, which I think was a rotten decision as it's pretty much false advertising. All the preview showed pretty much was the CGI elements which aren't that prevalent in the film itself.

Stephen Wrighton said...

Tahnks! Like I said, I wanted to read the book prior to making the decision on whether or not to take my son to see the movie (or rent it now). I'm ecstatic to hear that the film is close to the novel, seeing the CGI elements in the previews had me worried.

And yes, it is a heart-wrenching book, terribly sad, yet the inherent hopefulness of that last chapter is absolutely stunning.

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