I’m sure that every reader has a book that they hate. It wasn’t that it was just a boring read, or that the plot was too contrived or characters too shallow. It might not be anything qualitative at all. Every book inhabits a moral universe that dictates the events of the story. Sometimes that morality gets under your skin on such a level that it’s almost as if you had made a personal enemy. “Bridge to Terabithia” is one such book for me. Yes, the Newberry award winning, critically acclaimed novel is the antithesis of the novels of beauty and truth that give clarity to life.
I read it for a grade 5 novel study. It’s about a poor Virginia farm-boy named Jess who has this habit of getting his ass kicked on a daily basis at school. He meets Leslie, a girl from an affluent liberal family. They create this imaginary world of Terabithia in a small wood where they can escape the pressures of unpopularity. Their relationship is not without a little tension. Jess’ little sister May belle even mentions that God is going to damn Leslie to hell for believing the bible is fictional. Fortunately for Leslie, she gets to find out about all that when she cracks her head on a rock and drowns in the creek that runs through Terabithia. The book ends with Jess finding “the strength to carry on” as lets his sister into Terabithia and crowns her queen in Leslie’s place.
I asked then, as I do now: What the Hell?
Okay, so not only does our hero not get the girl, she dies by accident and now he has to share his future make-out spot with his little sister. Now, I love my sister, but making her queen of my imaginary kingdom strikes me as a little… creepy.
With the accidental death, there is no moral culpability. I know in 20th century first world countries, kids die pretty creative deaths, if at all. Cancer, bee stings, exploding pajamas, that kind of thing. The tragedy in the book is actually based on a real childhood incident involving the author’s husband. Now, if I’m a 5th grader trying to develop my love for reading, I don’t want to read about how messed up your life is, and if I’m grieving about my best friend’s real death, I’m sure as hell not going to embark on some incestuous mythology to try and deal with it! Does he make more friends after this? No! All he does is retreat into that imaginary world just as insular and introverted as before. This isn’t tragedy, it’s snuff!
It’s not even the death of a main character that bothered me. It appears that in “Bridge to Terabithia”, no one responsible for their actions. From the bullies to the rock in the creek, everything in this book just sort of happens to the characters, with no one taking any action in the real world.
Furthermore, the best books, the best stories are made of people who have to make hard choices. Letting Leslie go wasn’t hard choice. What was he going to do? They cremated her!
What about the Powerful message? That kids have no control over their lives? That as soon as we hit personal tragedy we give up on the honorable struggle of sibling rivalry? Kids need to read books that reveal the possibility of life. If we’re stopped by grim reality we should demonstrate how as beings of free will, we always have the possibility of deciding our fate.