Author: Katherine Paterson
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: December 2017
I think I got tricked by vaguely recalling the trailer for the modern movie version of this book, which YouTube confirms was released in 2007 and did indeed make this look like a knockoff Narnia with fantastical (and not figurative) woodland creatures. The original story, however, is fully grounded, concerning two fifth-graders who meet as neighbors in a working class New England town and form a meaningful friendship.
The Terabithia of the title is an invented land by the creek that Leslie helps the protagonist, Jesse, invent to pass the time and get away from the troubles of life. Their troubles are real but fairly regular, including school bullies and, for Jess, being one boy with four sisters and a father who works too hard to be there for him. Leslie, on the other hand, comes from money and is friends with her parents, just one of the many differences that make her stand out when she’s the new kid in town.
Jess becomes more aware of himself as a person through his friendship with Leslie, acknowledging that “she was his other, more exciting self—his way to Terabithia and beyond.” They both try on various roles among each other and at school, with Leslie always the more self-assured of the two (at one point she even gets into the emotional complications of needing to console a bully who she previously tormented). My interest waned about halfway through, especially when I realized that there was not a fantasy plot on the side. The reason for including Terabithia is unnecessarily spelled out by the author, as a means of framing the youths’ challenges in metaphor: “A few days after the encounter with the enemies of Terabithia, they had an encounter of a different sort at school.” Maybe it’s the big upswing in actual fantasy fiction over the past 40 years, but my mind kept having to readjust to this realist plot and accept the fact that the characters would not be slipping into a mystical realm.
But then in the very last chapters, there’s a dramatic turning point that I really did not see coming. (Spoiler alert.) I knew that the back cover mentioned a tragedy in its plot summary, but I tried to steer clear of guessing it. And I certainly did not guess it: Leslie dies in the creek when the rope swing breaks and Jess is away on a day trip with (weirdly) a young teacher from school. This means that the book is an About Something book, namely, the difficulty of dealing with death at a young age. The last pages are handled deftly and poignantly, and it finally becomes clear that Paterson really does have something to say. Someone reading this at the right time in life could truly be moved by lessons the protagonist is forced to learn, such as this bit about justifying a continued existence: “It was up to him to pay back the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.”
While the book doesn’t feel essential to me personally, it might keep its place on the shelf because of the author’s thoughts about death. But what intrigues me the most at this point is a quick line about the type of books Leslie was into, including one about “the adventures of an assistant pig keeper.” Is this a reference to The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, that enticing series I’m building a collection of from the used paperbacks I find? Excellent.