Wednesday, June 29, 2016

My Girl/Bridge to Terabithia

The other day while I was in Portland, I stopped into a vintage boutique. I love vintage fashion, though I don’t think I can pull it off most of the time. I also love vintage accessories: hats, gloves, handkerchiefs, and jewelry. I ended up buying a vintage mood ring; that’s something I know I can work with. I had one when I was a teen, though who knows where it ended up. When I was a teen, the 70’s styles like peasant tops and flared pants and platform shoes had come back in style. Plus, like any 90’s girl knows, we also had Vada Sultenfuss to thank for mood ring awareness.

My husband has an amazing ability of recollection, and he remembers vividly the TV trailers for the movie My Girl because they enticed the audience with the tagline “Mac is back!”. Macaulay Culkin had shot to stardom with Home Alone, and My Girl was his first film following it. He remembers begging his mother to go see it in the theaters, but she told him that the movie didn’t seem like it was going to be like Home Alone, but kind of sad, like Bridge to Terabithia. Which it is, almost exactly.
In Bridge to Terabithia, we have the protagonist Jess, who feels alienated from his father.”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” ( 19-20).  In My Girl, we get a glimpse of Vada’s relationship with her father (played aptly by Dan Aykroyd) when she says that she thinks she has cancer, and he asks her to pass the mayonnaise. Growing up in a funeral home with her widowed father, she sees that most of his attention to given to the dead and the grieving, so we can assume that her preoccupation with deadly diseases is her way of seeking his attention.

Jess meets the new girl in town, Leslie, and becomes friends with her. Jess gets a window into a relationship he’s never had when he sees Leslie working alongside her father, fixing up their new house. “She loved being needed by her father. She was learning, she related glowingly at recess, to “understand” her father” (86). Similarly,  Vada looks longingly at Thomas’s mother, who is asking him about his chores and wiping away his milk mustache; she is watching an interaction she knows she will never have.

So we have two protagonists, who have a best friend of the opposite sex, and an inability to relate to their own parents. Oh, and let’s not forget that they both have crushes on teachers, too. Jess receives some of the individual attention he’s starved for at home from his music teacher Miss Edmunds, and Vada enrolls in a summer poetry class to nurse her school-girl crush on her teacher Mr. Bixler Can anyone watch the scene where she sings to her class photo, where a heart has been drawn around the teacher’s face without cracking a smile?

Then of course comes the inevitable tragedy.

While playing in the woods alone, Leslie swings on a rope over the water. The rope snaps, and after hitting her head, Leslie drowns. Her sudden death sends Jess reeling. “he ran until he was stumbling, but he kept on, afraid to stop” (132). Likewise, after Vada loses her treasured mood ring in the woods, Thomas goes looking for it alone, and stumbles into some angry bees, who sting him. His allergy to bees dooms him, and Vada loses her only friend.

Death is the passageway for these narratives, but I’m not talking about Leslie and Thomas J flying up to Heaven. Death is the passageway that allows Jess and Vada to develop a closer connection to their respective fathers. Following Leslie’s sudden death, Jess’s father displays a tenderness for his son that he never had before. As Jess runs, desperate to escape reality, his father follows in his truck. “He picked Jess up in his arms as though he were a baby”. Vada also chooses to run away from reality, darting out the door at the funeral. When she comes home that night, she is able to talk to her father, and he really listens to her.

Of course the ending can’t follow the death of a child so soon. The readers/audience crave closure, and reassurance that our protagonists are going to be okay. It’s not just about closure, it’s about growth. Vada attends one last poetry class, in which she reads aloud a poem she wrote in honor of Thomas J. And Jess begins construction on a bridge to the titular land that he and Leslie created.

A few years back, I was lucky enough to meet Katherine Paterson. She is one of the nicest authors I’ve met. The line to get her signature was incredibly long, and snaked around the auditorium. It was slow-going too, but that’s only because she was talking to each person who wanted her signature. Not just the usual “Hi, how are you, thank you” business either; my husband ended up talking football with her! We asked her if she’d ever seen the movie My Girl, and she said she hadn’t. I wonder if she would think they stole her idea, or if this is an old idea, and the two retellings of it that I’m familiar with just happen to be relatively close in their times.

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