Study Guide

Bridge to Terabithia Family

By Katherine Paterson

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When you were the only boy smashed between four sisters, and the older two had despised you ever since you stopped letting them dress you up and wheel you around in their rusty old doll carriage, and the littlest one cried if you looked at her cross-eyed, it was nice to have somebody who worshiped you. Even if it got unhandy sometimes. (1.8)

Here the narrator moves into second person to describe Jess's place in his family. Since most of the book is in third person limited omniscient (see "Narrator Point of View" for more), this is unusual. It has the effect of putting readers into Jess's shoes and forcing us to really empathize with his position.

And May Belle would pop her buttons. Her brother was the fastest, the best. That ought to give the rest of the first grade something to chew their cuds on.

Even his dad would be proud. (1.20-21)

Jess's ambition to run fastest is fostered by a desire to please his family. In ascending order, he'll have the glory of being the fastest; the sister he likes best, May Belle, will "pop her buttons"; and "even his dad [will] be proud." That's the most exciting thing about the fantasy of winning – getting approval and acknowledgment from his dad.

Sometimes he felt so lonely among all these females – even the one rooster had died, and they hadn't yet gotten another. With his father gone from sunup until well past dark, who was there to know how he felt? (2.29)

Jess feels like an alien in his mostly female family. Everyone on the farm is female, even the livestock. The only other guy is his dad who's never there. So what this really tells us is that Jess's dad seems like an absent parent and Jess craves his father's approval and attention. Without his dad around, he feels even more isolated and alone.

Durn lucky kid. She could run after him and grab him and kiss him. It made Jess ache inside to watch his dad grab the little ones to his shoulder, or lean down and hug them. It seemed to him that he had been thought too big for that since the day he was born. (2.39)

Jess is jealous of his siblings because he feels like their dad is more loving and affectionate with them. They get the attention he craves. Yet he has to act like a "man," which seems to mean here that he doesn't get hugs and can't spontaneously demonstrate or ask for physical attention or reinforcement.

Lord, it hurt his guts to realize that it was Brenda who was his blood sister, and that really, from anyone else's point of view, he and Leslie were not related at all. (6.5)

We can see here that Jess's feeling about what constitutes family and whom he's closest to in the "real world" doesn't jive with what an outsider might think when just looking in. Brenda, his actual relation, would seem closer to him than his dear friend Leslie, even though that's so far from the truth it's laughable.

It wasn't one of those big sets that they advertised on TV, but it was electric, and he knew his dad had put more money into it than he should have. But the silly cars kept falling off at the curves until his father was cursing at them with impatience. Jess wanted it to be OK. He wanted so much for his dad to be proud of his present, the way he, Jess, had been proud of the puppy. (6.43)

Poor Jess and poor Jess's dad. Even though this present cost more than the Aarons could afford, it's still relatively cheap: it doesn't even work that well. Because it's flawed, Jess's dad is embarrassed and angry: it points to how much money they don't have and how, even when they do more than they can afford, it's still not enough. Somehow, Jess was able to get around this and give Leslie a present that transcend categories of money, but his father has not yet learned how to do so.

"What are you kids doing?" It was the same words that Jess's mother might have used, but it didn't come out the same way. Judy's eyes were kind of fuzzed over as she spoke, and her voice sounded as though it were being broadcast from miles away. (9.13)

Well, we know all about Jess's absent father, and faded mother, and here we see Leslie's mother is absent in a different way. She's there, in the same house as they are, yet she's also not there. Her brain is somewhere else. She makes all the right motions and says the same thing Jess's mother might have, but it doesn't mean the same thing somehow. For one of the first times, we realize that Leslie might have a similar problem to the one that Jess has, just in a different form.

He wondered what it would be like to have a mother whose stories were inside her head instead of marching across the television screen all day long. (9.23)

Jess's mother doesn't come off too well here in comparison to Leslie's – Leslie's is creative and preoccupied in the quest for establishing new knowledge, while Jess's is preoccupied by emptying her mind and letting other people's ideas fill it.

Suddenly his mother let out a great shuddering sob. "O my God. O my God." She said it over and over, her head down on her arms. His father moved to put his arm around her awkwardly, but he didn't take his eyes off Jess. (10.72)

For most of the book, we see Jess's parents through his biased lens, and see them in a negative light – especially in comparison to Leslie's parents, or to Leslie and Jess's own actions. But here we're reminded of their deep love for Jess as we see their fear that he was in danger and their relief that he's OK.

He tried to run faster, but his father passed him and stopped the pickup just ahead, then jumped out and ran back. He picked Jess up in his arms as though he were a baby. (11.10)

This is, finally, the physical affection Jess wanted at the beginning of the book and felt like he couldn't have. But, just as he gets to be the fastest runner when it doesn't matter anymore, here Jess is so grief-stricken over the loss of Leslie that his father's affection doesn't have the positive impact it might have had under more normal circumstances. Affection is still tied to the idea of youth rather than growing up or maturity, as Jess's father cradles him "as though he were a baby."

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