Tales of Despair: Swift Waters Under a Fantasy Bridge

One would normally consider children’s stories – the good ones, at least – to be intriguing, witty, adventurous and begetting a danger that resolves into a heartfelt and touching conclusion. Roald Dahl is wonderful at this; I remember well the tension of so many of his stories; the awful churning as Danny crept through the woods in the middle of the night, looking for his missing father; I remember holding my breath as Sophie hid from the Bloodbottler in a giant snozzcumber, only to end up in the giants mouth; I recall trembling as I turned the pages of The Witches, unable to believe that hero of the story had actually been turned into a mouse.

This particular tale is rather unique in its direction, in that – unlike the rather mediocre movie it spawned – the main character goes through an irreversible change (in this case a metamorphosis) that affects the remainder of his life, even after the end of the tale. The ending of this book is bittersweet; we learn that the boy will never return to human form, and is likely to die within the next few years – around the same time that his beloved grandmother will. What an ending for a children’s book.

There are many stories in the world of great change – of things never going back to how they were. These are the tales that leave us feeling sad and bittersweet, and are the ones that touch our hearts. The Lord of the Rings is such a tale; so is To Kill a Mockingbird, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Pet Semetary. Some tales speak of the ultimate change, and bring our characters beyond the edge of death. This is the realm of the classical tragedy, epitomized in works such as Romeo and Juliet.

But these themes of strife, and pain, and death – they are not the themes you would expect of a children’s tale. Even tragedies that involve children (Pet Semetary springs to mind as a particularly gut-churning example) are not written for children.

So what, then, was Katherine Paterson thinking when she wrote the wonderful tale, Bridge to Terabithia? I was young – quite young – when I first read this story. I was innocent, and the closest I had come in literature to tragedy was the Hardy Boys (if anyone remembers, Joe’s girlfriend, Iola, dies in the Casefiles series). It was a cute story, I remember thinking; I identified very much with little Jess, lonely and depressed and shut off, and the strong desire to have a friend with whom to share your innermost thoughts.

Jess, who could draw so well; Leslie, who could bring this out of him so well. She, who could invent entire worlds, and make them so real that Jess could veritably live in them with her. At first, of course, he’s unable to see, but as their relationship deepens (never love, but a iron-clad friendship), he begins to imagine her worlds with her, and they spend many days deep in the woods, crossing the dry riverbed to the wonderful land of Terabithia.

The land that, along with her, would come crashing down. The land that would be flooded and washed away, stripped of life by the same waters that stole hers.

And the land that, in time, would come to be his only saving grace; the one he would build a bridge to.

I cried bitter tears to read this story as a child, and it brings them to my eyes to write of it now. I felt betrayed – how could she? How could that be how it ended? It was a children’s book – people don’t die in children’s books.

But of course, people do die in our children’s lives. And it is a horror, and a tragedy, but it is also a part of life; they are rare, but those tales that touch on our mortality, and teach us the frailty of life, are the ones to be cherished above all others.

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6 thoughts on “Tales of Despair: Swift Waters Under a Fantasy Bridge

  1. I too remember reading this book as a child and have not visited since, but i did see the movie and for some reason its story was lost upon my childrens watching it i wonder if they had read the book like i did if they would have seen more in the movie than they did, now understand none and i mean no one out of 5 are readers like i am, sad but true i try to get them interested in any type of book genre but have failed so far.

    • You know, sometimes kids just are too involved in the media distraction of our age; it’s all too easy to be seduced by TV and internet and video games and movies. My son enjoys these things enough (maybe a little too much!), but one of the things I make sure of – maybe the only thing I’ve ever really done right with him – is to read him a story every single night before bed. I think that’s really instilled an appreciation of books in him, and he’s reading a lot to himself now.

      I haven’t seen the movie – I wasn’t sure I wanted to. It felt like they bastardized the book; I remember the trailer showing actually scenes of armies and battles, which I don’t recall at all from the book! I will probably have to give it a go sometime, though.

  2. I cried copiously, but at least I had some warning from the older people in my house that the book was “sad”. I was already aware of death, so I saw it coming, even though the foresight didn’t make the ending any easier. I could never stand to see the movie. The trailer seemed like it had taken profound liberties, and skipped the point entirely. Maybe that’s harsh, but it’s one book I don’t want to spoil with someone else’s interpretation and extraneous “fluff”. I’d agree with you that as much as a kid might feel “cheated”, the lesson has to come at some time, and some kids have to experience horrible things. They should have some sort of media in their life that is willing to tell them the truth in a way they can relate to and understand.

    • I agree with you (on many points!). Our own son’s first encounter with death was watching a squirrel being run over (multiple times) while waiting for the bus. I’m still upset, but there was really nothing that can be done. I wasn’t there, but my wife handled it well; when he asked her if the squirrel was okay, she didn’t lie. We also had our cat die recently. I guess learning to deal with death early is not so bad; I just wasn’t expecting it in a children’s book.

      And no – I haven’t seen the movie either. As soon as I saw CGI armies in the trailer, I knew it would be awful.

  3. I never read Bridge to Terabithia, but I heard about the ending and how bitter it was for a lot of people. Having had two major deaths in my life when I was young, I think it’s good for children to get that little moment of awareness, that we’re finite, and they can then talk to their parents about death and life and all that good stuff — in an ideal world, anyway. In reality it’s not quite so pristine and simple.

    • It’s not; I’m sorry to hear of your early losses. It is hard to know how to deal with death with your children; after all, it is a natural part of life, and it is healthy to grieve. At the same time, whilst you don’t necessarily want to overprotect them, you also don’t want to make it out to be the end of the world; the dead will be missed, yes, and it’s terrible and it’s sad, but it’s also unpreventable.

      I’m hoping our own son will be able to cope. I may perhaps read this book to him sometime.

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