Crafting Peace in Terabithia

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9, NIV)

“The Greek word for peacemakers is eirene-poios, which can be interpreted as ‘peace poets,’ suggesting that peace is a thing to be crafted or made. In such a definition, peace (or the Hebrew word shalom) is not simply an absence of war but a thriving in our lives.”
—Makoto Fujimura, Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture

“The church needs to be a place where stories are read. The exercise of the imagination is the training ground for compassion. Stories educate the heart. They are vehicles of confession, thanksgiving, and petition.”
—Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

I take a seat in the lecture hall at the Efroymson Center for Creative Writing at Butler University in Indianapolis. It’s Saturday afternoon and my daughter and I are here for her creative writing class, a two-hour session once a month this spring. The space is beautiful: a stately old home remodeled and repurposed to serve Butler’s MFA program. Canonical and contemporary works line the shelves to my right; I’m in a section of S through W and catch glimpses of Leslie Marmon Silko, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Leo Tolstoy, and Alice Walker. There’s also a copy of Chris Ware’s acclaimed graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, which The New Yorker called “the first formal masterpiece of (the) medium.” On a table in the back lie recently published issues of Booth, the national literary journal named, I take it, for famed Indianapolis writer Booth Tarkington, one of only three American novelists to win the Pulitzer more than once. (Faulkner and Updike are the others.) 

That my daughter is here in this literary center doing creative writing gives me a dual rush of pride and thankfulness. I am, after all, a writer, and I teach writing, and her mother is a poet putting together her first collection. Watching Una develop a passion for books has been very gratifying. She’s a great reader, having flown multiple times through nearly every middle grade novel and series in our town’s library, from Guardians of Ga’Hoole to Erin Hunter’s feline Warriors, from Percy Jackson & the Olympians to Harry Potter.

I’m thankful that stories are helping shape the working out of her faith. I believe Marilyn McEntrye’s assertion that “Stories are vehicles of confession, thanksgiving, and petition.” Literature, it seems to me, is uniquely positioned to foster spiritual growth by nurturing empathy and teaching us to love our neighbors better. I believe that reading helps us develop a deeper sense of God’s incarnate love. 

We live in a poverty-stricken Rust Belt town: unemployment, lack of opportunity, poor health, prevalent drug use, incarceration, and many other issues have affected Una’s classmates and neighbors. We desperately need a generation who has the chance to cultivate concern for and sensitivity to the well-being of others, to craft peace where challenge abounds, where brokenness and fear are ubiquitous. I pray that her investment in reading and writing will contribute to her burgeoning sense of justice and service.

Recently, her reading took a starkly realist turn: she sat down next to me on the couch and cracked open Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. Beth and I exchanged worried glances. Many of the stories Una has loved are rich and artfully rendered, offering poignant encounters with the self and “the Other” in various forms. I’ve seen her experience the emotional purging of catharsis (which Aristotle related to pity and fear) while reading. Yet I was scared that the death of a character her own age in Terabithia might be too much to handle.

I worried—I who spend my days preaching to students that good art should both “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” should shake us out of our complacency as often as needed (which, it seems to me, is quite often). I who just finished teaching Euripides’s Medea, featuring a protagonist who becomes at least as Other, as perfectly challenging for a reader to encounter, as anyone in Western literature. The play is so hard for audiences to reckon with that scholar Emily McDermott titled her book-length study of it The Incarnation of Disorder

When it came to my daughter, I wondered if the timing was right to navigate this particular encounter. Late in the book, when Jess’s father attempts to comfort Jess upon Leslie’s death, he says, simply, “Hell, ain’t it?” And the narrator remarks, “It was the kind of thing Jess could hear his father saying to another man.” The remark signifies a milestone in Jess’s coming of age: his trip to the Underworld, the trip that no quest toward identity, no journey from innocence to experience, can circumvent . . . not even via the protection of a well-meaning parent.

Though it shook her, Una loved the book. In fact she turned around and read it again straight through. I wanted to ask about it, but tried to give her space. I wondered how she experienced the story; I wondered at the contours of her approach toward, and immersion in, this particular encounter—with the characters, the tragedy, and ultimately with her own mortality.  

In a recent New York Times op-ed on the value of the humanities, Arnold Weinstein wrote that art and literature “help create denser and more generous lives, lives aware that others are not only other, but are real. In this regard,” he says, they “[add] depth and resonance.” If we have any hope of peace—in ourselves, in our families and small private spheres, in our communities, among our nations—that hope may be inextricably related to our willingness to experience encounter. And for those of us who generally lack the resources to trot around the globe (not to mention lack the science to time-travel), literature and the arts provide the most fertile soil in which encounter can take root. For those whose are inclined, flourishing seems more possible.

As I think of the books shelved beside me at Butler, I consider the quality of encounters Una will have when she’s ready, from reading Celie’s letters to God in The Color Purple to learning the traditions of Old World Jews in “The Gentleman from Cracow” to following the eponymous Jimmy Corrigan to Michigan as he seeks to meet his estranged father. Furthermore, I love that she’s learning to tell her own stories, to navigate relationships between form and content, to enact love through imaginative “vehicles of confession, thanksgiving, and petition,” to become a peace poet.

I finally asked her about Bridge to Terabithia, casually, not wanting to push. She told me of the overwhelming sadness. But also, without being prompted, she reminded me of all the good Leslie does for the aching Jess, pointing out that it was Leslie who was new in town and had every right to need lifting up herself. Yet it is she who transforms her pain into blessing. Una pointed out how Jess passes on the boons he receives by making May Belle the new queen of Terabithia at the end.

It was clear that for Una, the story has a lot to show us (as the best ones often do) about connection, healing, and peace, however imperfect—not despite the suffering, but because of it.

Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country: Poems (2012) and Notes from the Spectrum: On Faith, Community, Poetry, and Autism (forthcoming from Cascade Books). A native New Yorker, he lives in Hartford City, Indiana, where he is Associate Professor of English at Taylor University and Editor-in-Chief of Relief Journal.

A Surge and a Story

Tea and Civility