It was past bedtime, and I was downstairs reading on the couch. The boys had gone out. The girl had gone upstairs to sleep, or so I thought until I heard footsteps on the wood plank stairs behind me, and turned to see her descending. “I finished ‘Anne of Green Gables,’” said the girl as she came down the stairs. “It was so, so good.” Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, and I knew immediately what had happened. “Oh, Matthew…wasn’t that so sad?” Upon this acknowledgement, she contained herself no longer and burst into tears, openly weeping. “Why did he have to die?” I just held her on the couch. “It’s unfair, too,” I added, “That Anne couldn’t go to college anymore, and had to come home.” “I don’t understand, why couldn’t she just go anyway?” Indeed, it seems harder to understand in today’s world, but a clear impossibility at the time of the book, where college was a luxury for both men and women and often let go for domestic needs.
This was her first big emotional death in a book, which is something that I don’t think you ever forget. It’s not her first literary death, having read the Harry Potter series, but it was the first one with this impact. It’s not also the first book which makes her cry, as that goes to the picture book (from the song lyrics, yes) “Puff the Magic Dragon,” where the boy goes away and leaves behind the dragon. That one makes me misty as well, in all honesty. The poor dragon looks so sad when his friend is gone, leaving him alone in the cave.
Mine was Bridge to Terabithia, assigned reading in the second grade. Two friends, a girl and boy, escape to the imaginary world of Terabithia by swinging on a rope over a creek to the woods. I still recall the gutting hollow feeling when you learn the rope broke, and the girl didn’t rise up. I just looked up the details to make sure I was getting it right and immediately started crying. After I finished that book I vowed never to read it again, devastating as it was.
For the boy, this happened earlier this year with a book called “The Inn Between,” which ends with a girl’s best friend dying, and like all of us above, he was wrecked.
I asked Eric about his, and while he can’t remember the title, he remembers being about ten and the book was about two boys who play baseball together, and one of them dies.
There’s something about getting to know a character over a book, loving the character and also identifying with the person who is left behind that is gut wrenching. It’s a big step the first time this happens, because up until that point everything you’ve read in books generally has a happy ending. Even crises that occur during the story are resolved neatly by the end and everyone goes home and eats ice cream. For many kids, they’ve never dealt with a death of someone they were very close to, and the emotions are something new and raw and unexpected.
After that first one, the world of books and possibility opens up. You’re never really sure again that all of the characters in a book will be there at the end, and that tension is in the back of your head. I wonder if in some way we protect ourselves by not attaching to characters too deeply, lest they not survive, so as not to open ourselves up to that pain again. Over the years I’ve read countless books in which countless people have died, and I remember none of them as well as that first one. The memory of Matthew’s death will stay with the girl for the rest of her life.
I dried the girl’s tears, and after a bit of snuggle time we headed back upstairs, to tuck in and hopefully have dreams of sweeter things.