By Maureen Tai, 18 May 2018
“Like God in the Bible, they looked at what they had made and found it very good.”
The setting is a small rural community outside Washington in the 1960s. On the outside, Jesse Aarons is a hen-pecked, cow-milking, God-fearing, quietly anxious but otherwise normal fifth grader. On the inside, Jess is much more than that. He is an artist, a creator of pictures, with fragile sensitivities and complicated emotions. It takes an extraordinary friendship in the magical kingdom of Terabithia, and a tragic loss, for Jess to discover, to become, and to be accepted for the person he truly is.
Some people in this world are a force of nature. Explosively energetic, bold, confident, unforgettable, unstoppable. If you happen to wander into their orbit, you get irretrievably sucked in or you get mercilessly flung back. Either way, you don’t quite know what hit you but you’re never the same again afterwards.
For me, that person was a towering Australian from Coffs Harbour called Karina Shorter when we were both 18 and stranded in Tokyo for a year. For Jess Aarons, that person is Leslie Burke. She’s a city girl who moves to Jess’ community with her cultured, free-thinking parents, Bill and Judy. She calls them by their first names, that’s how progressive a family they are. Leslie is sassy, smart, funny, wildly imaginative and the fastest runner in the school (without even trying). Similar to Jess, she is unlike anyone else in school, although Jess keeps his differences hidden from everyone, even his family.
The pair are kindred souls, though you wouldn’t know it at first. A friendship evolves naturally from a humiliating defeat on the school playground and shared bus rides to and from school, culminating in the creation of a secret make-believe world on the other side of a dry creek bed. In the mystical realm of Terabithia, Jess and Leslie are its supreme rulers, its King and Queen, and free to become whoever they want to be. For Jess, he finally has a space where he can be himself, and he has finally found someone to share that authentic self with. And for Leslie, she finds acceptance, respect and companionship in an unforgiving new environment. If this is not love, I’m not sure what is.
By the time we are confronted with the tragic death that threatens to break Jess’ spirit as well as ours, we have come to understand and feel affectionate towards all the characters in Jess’ world. There is the Aarons’ stoic milk cow, Miss Bessie. The unsmiling fifth grade teacher, Mrs Myers and the alluring Miss Edmunds, who teaches music each week. Jess’ constantly tired and emotionally distant parents and his clingy wide-eyed younger sibling, May Belle. By the end of the book, we’re sympathetic even towards his churlish and frivolous older sisters, Brenda and Ellie.
The bridge in Bridge to Terabithia only gets built at the end of the story. But for Jesse Aarons, the bridge signifies a rebirth after a devastating loss, the beginning of a new authentic life. But he – and we, the readers – will never fully recover from our chance meeting with Leslie Burke. We will never be the same again.
For ages 8 and up.