“Bridge to Terabithia” and Author Katherine Paterson

“Bridge to Terabithia” and Author Katherine Paterson January 29, 2007

Walden Media’s upcoming adventure Bridge to Terabithia looks intriguing. I haven’t read Paterson’s work yet, but an interview she did for Books and Culture several years ago has stuck with me because of the passionate way she spoke about the role of the Christian artist…

Access to the full article requires a subscription to the CT library (an investment that will reward you above and beyond your expectations, by the way).

But here’s a clip (reprinted with permission from John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture):

“Novelists write out of their deepest selves,” [Paterson] says. “Whatever is there in them comes out willy-nilly, and it is not a conscious act on their part. If I were to consciously say, ‘This book shall now be a Christian book,’ then the act would become conscious and not out of myself. It would either be a very peculiar thing to do — like saying, ‘I shall now be humble’ — or it would be simple propaganda.”

She leans forward and speaks quickly now to dispel some of the connotations of the word. “Propaganda occurs when a writer is directly trying to persuade, and in that sense, propaganda is not bad. When I think of Who Am I? (1992), I think of propaganda. But persuasion is not story, and when you try to make a story out of persuasion then you’ve done something wrong to the story. You’ve violated the essence of what a story is.”

Here she had spoken with none of the easy laughter of earlier. I ask, “Would you then say that you are a Christian writer?” expecting her to quail at the label.

But she does not, and the laughter returns. “A Christian first,” she says. “I have a vocation as a writer; that is my calling. But a Christian first.”

Sometime about now I remember to turn on the tape recorder. Here we are at the heart of Katherine Paterson as a writer: The Christian given the vocation of writing, and called to write about the radical biblical hope that lies in her deepest self.

But there is no greater irony about Katherine Paterson’s work than the fact that it is so frequently — one might almost use the word consistently — attacked and censored by Christian groups. And there seem to be so many problematic scenes from which to choose. Jess and Leslie pray to imaginary gods in Bridge to Terabithia (1977). Takiko not only returns home with her stepfather at the end of Of Nightingales That Weep (1974), but marries him and has a child in the novel’s joyous climax. Come Sing, Jimmy Jo (1985) has a mother who fools around — even, perhaps, with her husband’s brother; in Park’s Quest (1988) it is the father who has had an illegitimate child while on duty in Vietnam.

And there is Gilly Hopkins, whose surname comes from one of the poets Paterson most admires. The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) is one of the most frequently attacked of her books. It is about a child who seems about as far from her Tolkienesque namesake Galadriel as might be possible. She lies and steals. She deceives and manipulates. She is not above a fistfight, and neither is she averse to anonymous racial slurs. And she swears. Creatively. This would hardly seem to be the book for the Christian home or church library. Many, many Christian readers have been at pains to point this out.

“If you want to look for the most openly Christian book I have written,” Katherine explains now, “it isn’t Jip. I think it’s The Great Gilly Hopkins. My commitment as a writer is to be honest, and I have to be honest all the time, not just when every character behaves well and doesn’t cuss. A novel concerned with sin and redemption will have real characters, and there are real characters who lie and steal and cuss.” In fact, The Great Gilly Hopkins is a retelling of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and, she explains, you need to be with the son at the hog trough if you want to be with him when he is welcomed home.

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