Study Guide

Bridge to Terabithia Innocence

By Katherine Paterson

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"Oh, all right. But I ain't got no money to give you."

Any money, something whispered inside Jess's head.

"I know, Momma. We'll just take the five dollars Daddy promised us. No more'n that." (1.48-50)

Both of Mrs. Aarons' children are smarter than she is in this unfortunate moment. Ellie tricks their mother into giving her "five dollars" by telling her their father "promised" it – which for all we know, he most likely did not. Meanwhile, Jess silently corrects his mother's grammar. Both Ellie's and Jess's actions show role reversals in which they know more or are wiser than their parent.

The Perkins place was one of those ratty old country houses you moved into because you had no decent place to go and moved out of as quickly as you could. He thought later how peculiar it was that here was probably the biggest thing in his life, and he had shrugged it off as nothing. (1.67)

In a rare moment of perspective that moves outside of the story's timeline, we hear from a future version of Jess, who's reflecting that this was a special, life-altering moment and he yet "shrugged it off as nothing" at the time. But that's normal, not "peculiar" – a lot of the time, we encounter ordinary events and don't realize how or in what way they might impact us later. That's one of the cool things about fiction – it allows this kind of double take and reflection on life.

The reaction didn't seem to bother her. She stood there in front, her eyes saying, "OK, friends, here I am," in answer to their open-mouthed stares while Mrs. Myers fluttered about trying to figure where to put the extra desk. (3.3)

Leslie's innocence in this moment can also be read as purity. She's so open and ready to be "friends" with everyone in the room, even as their "open-mouthed stares" look back at her. She doesn't see those looks for what they can contain: mockery, disdain, and difference. She accepts them and expects to be accepted in return.

He couldn't help turning to watch. She ran as though it was her nature. It reminded him of the flight of wild ducks in the autumn. So smooth. The word "beautiful" came to his mind, but he shook it away and hurried up toward the house. (3.87)

Jess has no choice but to admire Leslie's run, just as Leslie has no choice but to run the way she does. Watching her "beautiful" run inspires beautiful thoughts in him. Jess may not think of himself as smart, sophisticated, or educated, but he creates a beautiful metaphor here when he unconsciously describes Leslie's run as like "the flight of wild ducks in the autumn."

"Did I ever tell you the story of Hamlet?"

He rolled over on his back. "Not yet," he said happily. Lord, he loved Leslie's stories. Someday, when he was good enough, he would ask her to write them in a book and let him do all the pictures. (5.62-63)

Jess doesn't realize that Hamlet or Moby Dick, or any of the rest, aren't necessarily "Leslie's stories" – but, of course, we know they were written by Shakespeare and Melville, and people like that. But, for Jess, they basically come from Leslie herself. Here we see a side of Jess's innocence, as he imagines a future for the two of them in which she writes these stories (which have already been written by other people) and he draws the illustrations – a child's fantasy of a grown-up world.

"Did you know her father beats her?"

"Lots of kids' fathers beat 'um." Will you get on with it?

"No, I mean really beats her. The kind of beatings they take people to jail for in Arlington." She shook her head in disbelief. "You can't imagine…" (7.85-87)

We think this small interchange is one of the most painful things in the book. Leslie, in her innocence, is horrified and amazed by the way that Janice describes her "beatings." For Leslie – the queen of imagination and of Terabithia – to classify those beatings as something that "can't" be imagined, means they must be incredibly, incredibly bad. What compounds this, though, is that Jess isn't amazed or shocked at first by the fact that Janice gets beaten. Instead, he matter-of-factly says, "Lots of kids' fathers beat 'um." What kind of world are these kids living in?

"May Belle's right." Jess reached down into the deepest pit of his mind. "It's because we're all vile sinners God made Jesus die."

"Do you think that's true?"

He was shocked. "It's in the Bible, Leslie." (8.66-68)

Who do you think is more naïve here? Is it Leslie, for wondering whether Jesus did die because of the "vile sinners" on earth? Or is it Jess, for unquestioningly accepting that when something's in the Bible, that means it's "true"?

"Great," she said. "My life has been worthwhile after all." He didn't understand her, but he didn't care. He knew she was happy to be with him, and that was enough to know. (10.53)

Miss Edmunds is talking about things Jess doesn't understand – we can see her as being sarcastic, kind of, but we also get the sense that working and teaching in Lark Creek is pretty thankless. Jess, however, judges her in this moment by her actions rather than her words. Giving someone else pleasure by just keeping them company isn't something that happens a lot for Jess, and that in itself makes him "happy" too.

They had never been there in the dark. But there was enough moon for them to find their way into the castle, and he could tell her about his day in Washington. And apologize. It had been so dumb of him not to ask if Leslie could go, too. (11.15)

Our hearts break for Jess a little here when he denies Leslie's absence and wants to apologize, to turn back the clock, and to hang out with Leslie again. In his denial of the terrible thing that happens, he becomes suddenly, shockingly brave. He's confident that they can make it to Terabithia even "in the dark," and that he can talk with Leslie just like nothing ever happened – smoothing things out by apologizing, and trying so hard to change the past.

Of course, by Monday Jess knew; but still, but still, at the bus stop he looked up, half expecting to see her running up across the field, her lovely, even, rhythmic run. (13.44)

Jess may only be in the fifth grade, but he'd probably have this reaction to Leslie's death no matter how old he was. It's going to take him a while to realize, to remember, that Leslie won't "run up" to the bus anymore, that he won't "see her running" again at all. Just because he knows she won't be there, doesn't mean he's not going to expect or desire it. She's his best friend. He doesn't want her to be gone.

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