We were assigned to read Bridge to Terabithia when I was in 4th or 5th grade. It was and is an incredibly powerful book. Now, what?, 35 years later I can still remember almost every detail of the book. Even though I could never bring myself to read it more than that one time. I remember distinctly being made fun of in class because, when we were given time in class to read it, I broke down and cried when Leslie died. Needless to say, I thought often about that young heroine and her friend, our narrator, Jess in the last two years as I consider the impact Mack’s death has had on his friends. Today NPR interviewed the author Katherine Paterson and my breath was just a bit taken aback, but I was not surprised by her response.
On the girl who inspired the character of Leslie Burke
Lisa Hill, who was my son David’s best friend when they were in the second grade, was in many ways like I picture Leslie Burke. Lisa was only 8 when she died; actually, she was struck by lightning. So there were certainly similarities — she was bright and she was funny and she was athletic and she was a wonderful kid. And it broke all of our hearts when she died. …
The only way I could keep her alive was not to write that chapter. As I tell in the book, going to a friend’s house and the friend says, “How’s your book coming?” And I just blurted out that I was writing a story about a friendship between a boy and a girl, and the girl was going to die, but I couldn’t let her die. And so I said to [the friend], “I think I just can’t face Lisa’s death again.”
Well, [she] knew very well that I, in that same year, had been operated on for cancer. And she said, “I don’t think it’s Leslie’s death you can’t face. I think it’s yours.” And I realized she was absolutely right. And if that was true, then I would have to go home and finish the book because I would have to face my own death.
It was a great, freeing thing for me, to face that death and then to move on.
I encourage you to listen/read the entire interview. I am not sure if I have enough courage to go back yet and read Bridge to Terabithia. But I am eternally grateful to her story. In many ways I think reading that story, back when I was Mack’s age, in some very real ways began the preparation I needed to face the death of our dear Mack. In the interview she says that the book is about friendship, not death, and that is true about all our stories. We must always remember to write our lives as a story about friendship and life, not matter how many hardships and deaths intrude on our narrative.