Three books feature in this post: Bridge to Terabithia, The Fault in Our Stars, and Deadline. The first is a Newbery Award winner. Please excuse the length of this post — it was unavoidable.
The church across the street cut down two large cherry trees today, as part of their expansion plans. No ceremony, no protesters. Just the zhzhzhzhzh of the saws lopping off low branches and then slicing into the trunks at ground level. I’m glad my daughter wasn’t here to see them go down. She grew up with those trees: the frothy pink blossoms each spring, falling to form a thick carpet; the summer shade; the red leaves in the fall, dropping like the blossoms; and then the bare branches in winter against snow and the church roof.
So I’m in a somber mood. From Bruce Cockburn’s “Mighty Trucks of Midnight”: “I believe it’s a sin to try and make things last forever”. It’s a subtle truth, so hard to accept, especially when “progress” seems closer to “destruction”, but we have to “let go of the things that keep [us] tethered”.
Lives end, even young ones, and authors (the brave ones) address this. The books discussed in this post are from three such authors.
Jess, in Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson, 1978 Newbery winner), lonely and outnumbered by his four sisters, yearns to be special in some way. It’s only when a new neighbor, Leslie, becomes his best friend and they create their imaginary world of Terabithia, that he stops worrying about what others think. Leslie’s open mind and curiosity about everything, and her clear appreciation for his friendship, push him to be brave and to recognize his own growing abilities. Her sudden death towards the end of the novel comes as a jolt, just after a “perfect day” Jess has enjoyed without her. Guilt, anger, grief — it’s too much for him to bear with no Leslie to help him understand it all. I loved the true-to-life family scenes — the squabbling kids, the harried and distracted parents. Yet, when Jess is in pain, his mother notices and keeps his sisters away from him. His normally distant father silently helps Jess through the worst days.
The two other books approach death from a different angle. In Deadline (2007), Chris Crutcher gives us a character who knows from the fourth page that he has one year to live. Ben is 18, heading into his senior year at high school in a small town in Idaho, and has just been diagnosed with an incurable cancer. He talks the doctor into not telling his parents, so that he can have the senior year he wanted: making the football team, hooking up with the local beauty, and challenging narrow-minded bigotry (is there any other kind?) wherever he sees it.
John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) has two main characters living with fatal diseases: Hazel, whose experimental treatment is barely keeping her cancer at bay, and Augustus, whose cancer is in remission. They meet at a support group, fall in love, and travel to Holland to hunt down the reclusive author of Hazel’s favorite book.
These books are funny, painful (even without the Grim Reaper hanging over every page, it’s always hard to watch kids make their way through those messy teen-age years). School, friends, dating, family (Hazel’s parents are so supportive they nearly smother her, and Ben’s would be if they knew). Most of Hazel’s and Augustus’s friends have or had cancer, and Hazel finds a chasm growing between her and one friend who has never been ill. Ben keeps his secret through the end of football season, and then slowly it comes out — to his brother, then his girlfriend (who is so angry she dumps him), then, finally, his parents and the town.
Ben dies, and Augustus dies, and we find that life continues without them. Of course it does. We KNOW that in our heads, but it’s our hearts that give us trouble. There are days when a line is drawn, marking a Before and After. Usually these are lines marking good, happy events, but there have to be bad events, and we cross those lines and keep going.
Enough. I’ll make my next post more cheerful. Here’s that Bruce Cockburn song: