November 2, 2011 § 1 Comment
Guest post by Steven Grahmann.
Last week my eight-year-old son Noah asked me a question I’ve been dreading since he learned to read. Perusing our bookshelf, he picked out a book and asked if he could read it. Now, I was a Creative Writing major in college, so for me censorship is on par with, like, punching kittens. So I didn’t know what to say…because I wanted to say no.
I read Kathryn Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia when I was a little older than Noah is now. It remains one of my most vivid childhood memories. I’d only recently discovered the world of “chapter books,” and I’d been satisfying my insatiable hunger for them with the typical fare at that time: Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, Choose Your Own Adventure adventures, and Superfudge. When my mom noticed the depths of my desperation (I had resorted to dipping into my sister’s Babysitter’s Club collection) (Let’s keep that between us, ok?), she suggested I try Bridge to Terabithia.
The first place I remember relating to a literary character was in Terabithia. Unlike Ms. Frizzle’s students or the Hardy Boys, Jess was real – I recognized myself in him. He was lonely, and insecure, and complicated….hey, just like I was! It was also the first time I remember caring for a character. My eight-year-old heart ached for a friend as loyal and funny as Leslie. Plus in the cover art she was real cute.
But the reason the book has stuck with me for almost 25 years, the reason I still have it on my bookshelf – and the reason I hesitated when Noah asked for it – is that it was the first time I was truly affected by art. And the effect wasn’t pleasant.
Heads up! If you haven’t read the book and don’t want it spoiled I suggest you stop reading now, because I can’t explain this without giving the ending away. Ready?
Leslie dies. I know. I couldn’t believe it either.
After the initial confusion wore off (I honestly thought that by the end she would be raised from the dead somehow), a much deeper feeling took over: betrayal. I did not feel like this should be allowed. Patterson had roped me into loving someone that she had created. And then she, the author, the one with all the power, had killed her. I remember I was sitting in the backseat of my parents’ station wagon, and I remember crying, and I remember feeling angry and confused and betrayed.
My Opa (my dad’s dad) died later that same year, and I thought about Leslie and Jess a lot after it happened. There weren’t any answers in Bridge to Terabithia. In the book death is horrible, and it’s unfair, and it’s sad. No one gives Jess any pat responses, and though he begins to cope at the end, there’s no resolution. As I watched my family deal with my grandfather’s death, especially my dad, I realized something else: art reflects life. Or maybe in my case it was the other way around. Either way, my betrayal gave way to gratefulness as this work of fiction was laid over my real life and helped me cope.
I ended up taking a cue from my mom, trusting my son, and giving Noah Bridge to Terabithia. We’ll talk about it after he reads it, and we’ll probably watch the movie. Most likely I’ll cry, and we’ll talk about that too. He’s already dealt with death (his great-grampa died last year, and our good friend shortly before that), and I know he will again. Sooner than later he will wonder about answers and resolution and coping when people close to him die.
Might as well put Kathryn Patterson to work.