Return to Terabithia

Jamie Zipfel
7 min readJul 25, 2023
An image of a creekbed running through a forest of tall pines.

For years, I’d avoided it, assumed that this was just one of those gaps in my memory that was meant to be there. Also I remember hating the ending — the plot and characters lost to me, but the visceral, nauseating wrongeness of the ending stuck with me all these years. It was an accident, the universe’s own tragic sense of irony that tied up Bridge to Terabithia with the end of childhood. Whatever shreds of childhood innocence I’d hung onto were gone by the end of that year. For better or worse, this book was one of those childish things I’d put away in the name of growing up. Unlike other childhood literary treasures I’ve returned to over the years — The Velveteen Rabbit, The Chronicles of Narnia — this one felt different. Sacred somehow, untouchable. Until, of course, the day comes that it isn’t.

I was working on a piece about 9/11, about how it felt to be a kid in the Middle of Nowhere while something Grave and Important happens around you, how all of a sudden the rules under which you’d been operating were gone, the whole world’s chess pieces knocked to the floor. I’d made reference to the book, and a friend in my weekly writer’s circle suggested that that particular lemon had some more juice in it. He was right, and I knew it. I’d skimmed the plot section of the Wikipedia entry through one squinted eye, unsure why I was so afraid. I felt found out, exposed, and more than a little silly.

What did I have to be afraid of, anyway? A middle-grade novel published in the 70s? What did I think was gonna be in there? I have a degree in literature, for God’s sake. I’ve read The Inferno, twice. What was the worst that was gonna happen? I downloaded the book from the library and prepared to find out.

From the first page, I knew why it had entranced me so deeply as a child. For one thing, these people talked the way people around me talked. They ate what we ate, and knew the art of making things stretch. Lark Creek Elementary sounded a lot like St. Boniface, or St. Mary’s, or Brown. For another, Jess sounded a lot like me — and not in ways that I particularly appreciated. Outwardly competitive and longing to be the best, all while internally terrified that he might be a coward. Worried that he can’t stand up to bullies when it counts. Living in a family that had a ton of expectations for him that didn’t seem to extend to everybody else. A prissy older sister and a younger one who’s always in his business. Katherine Paterson might as well’ve just named the character Jamie and saved herself the trouble.

As much as I’d been afraid to dive in, once I broke the cold water, I was afraid to let it go. I read all morning, coffee going cold. I read sprawled out on my couch. I read while waiting for my sister to finish an errand, parked in a loading zone. I read while getting a manicure, carefully switching hands to avoid smudges or losing my place. I was enchanted, captivated — and on the edge of my seat because I knew from the Wikipedia page what must, surely, be right around the next turn of the digital page.

That’s the thing about re-reading books, even books you barely remember. You know the big reveal is coming, and you cannot stop it and you cannot interfere. As much as I heard the thunder of Grandpa Bud’s old blue pickup in the blapity-blapity-blapity of Mr. Aaron’s truck. No matter how much I remember wishing I lived in a cultured family like the Burkes. Mine were called the Kresses, and their kids went to art school and Mrs. Dajnak kept her name and their house had a spiral staircase. No matter how much I was enjoying the magic of Terabithia, the poetry of it, the glory of a childhood where you had a true friend who really saw you and led you into the dark parts of the forest and showed you that it was alright not to be afraid — the end was always coming.

Leslie was always going to die. It was always going to be senseless and unfair, because accidents happen and people die too young and good people don’t always get happy endings. I am old enough now to have seen it in the real world enough times to know. Having walked into those hushed rooms and received those phone calls that begin with dead air didn’t mean I was spared a repeat of the gut punch I first received on the carpet of Mr. Rommel’s fifth-grade classroom. The magic was still gone. Terabithia was still hollow and echoing, without a queen to make her real. Childhood, no matter how peppered with small slights that felt big and big problems only partially shielded from view, was over. It hit me as hard this afternoon as it had in September of 2001. It felt like I’d lost my own childhood twice.

There had once been something beautiful and secret, and now it was gone. I had entered into this willingly, and I let it unravel me.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t read the book differently. For one thing, that degree in literature gave me the language to describe what I saw happening in real time. Things like Chekhov’s gun — the first time you see the rope swing, you know that at some point it’ll break. Foreshadowing and foils and dramatic irony galore! I’ve read enough stuff by now to know that when an author makes a reference to Moby Dick or Hamlet or Easter Sunday, it’s probably not for kicks. Was she writing this book for tiny MENSA members? Jesus.

For another thing, I read the family differently, although this might be a “Trix are for kids” situation. I remembered, or imagined, the parents as cold and uncaring. But there was a subtlety there that missed me as a kid. Reading it now, I see the way their struggle to stay out of poverty colored all of their choices. I can understand why Ma would dislike Leslie, wouldn’t want her coming to church with them, would hate other folks pokin’ their noses in the Aaronses business. And even though Dad is always painted as this bastion of unspoken expectations, my adult self sees him differently. I see in him my own father, anxious about picking the right gift, completely unsure what to say, but trying to love his kid through grief. I see a man who’s trying his best, even if his best usually falls short. I see their ashen faces when Jess returns from his day in Washington with Miss Edmunds not as anger that he would go, but fear that he wouldn’t come back. They are complicated and nuanced in a way that as a child, I couldn’t see.

All of this brings me to the ending, the thing that was so wrong that I swore off the book for twenty years and also endeavored to forget every single detail about it. Reading it now, I can see why younger me was so angry. How could Jess betray Leslie like that by blabbing their secret? And to May Belle of all people, who’d stuck her nose in his business and needed rescuing again? Leslie wasn’t even around to defend herself, not to mention that she was always the one to make the magic of Terabithia for Jess in the first place. It was hers and theirs, and sharing that sacrosanct secret with his little sister felt like a stab in the guts. And to build a bridge with pieces of Leslie’s own house to make it easier for May Belle to enter, never requiring that she face her fears and the rope swing in order to be welcomed into Terabithia? I can understand why ten-year-old me nearly Hulked out and wrote a strongly-worded letter (for a fifth grader) and sent it off to Mrs. Katherine Paterson, wherever she was.

But seeing it now, with older (though maybe not clearer) eyes, I understand it. You cannot hold something as beautiful and magical as Terabithia to yourself. At some point, it becomes your job to light the way for others. Like finding out Santa Claus isn’t real and agreeing to keep up the ruse so your younger siblings can have him a little longer. When the Spirits no longer talk to you, it’s because someone else needs them. The truth, that life is unfair and cruel and terrible and messy, doesn’t diminish the magic; but your relationship to the magic changes. It is the way of things, to make something beautiful and then let it go into the hands of whoever needs it. It’s true of teaching, and of writing, and of Terabithia. The ending was perfect, as it turned out — I just had to grow into it a little.

Picking up the book, I thought what I needed was a few details to sharpen my story. What I got was a chance to build a bridge. Back to my own childhood in all its messy, brutal brilliance. In return for my bravery, I was gifted a golden room filled with warm autumn sunlight in a dilapidated old farmhouse. I entered the story and let it carry me along, fully aware that it would hurt. I let it unravel me, let it sink deep into my bones. I got to go back to Terabithia, if only briefly. It was unforgettable.

N.B. I wrote this story longhand, with a green pen shaped like a dinosaur. I picked it up in the Manchester Picadilly train station, and it says “Roar!” down one side. I’d picked it up because I’m trying this thing where I indulge my inner child when I can, when what she wants is an ice cream cone or to ride the escalators (rather than, say, to quit her job and immediately retrain as a ballerina). It died about halfway through the writing of the story, running out of ink just as I was getting to the good part. I thought briefly about keeping her as a desk ornament or something, but that isn’t how this goes. I found another pen; life goes on. So although I’ve decided to thank the pen for her service and let her go to the great stationery drawer in the sky, I’ve also decided to name the dinosaur pen Leslie. Thank you to the Leslies, of both the fictional and the plastic varieties.

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Jamie Zipfel

A writer/teacher/designer split between the Midwest and the Middle East.