In a recent set of interviews and application psych tests, I found myself faced with a question that has stumped me for years now: Name and describe a fictional or historical character you admire and respect. It's always difficult with historical figures, because the ones I know most about are either inherently evil or malicious (or at least are perceived as such), or entirely ubiquitous. Instead I take this as an opportunity for literary fun, where the first concern is that of audience. Who am I writing this for? From the first instant, I find myself limiting my options. It can't be a character with too grim a setting, because this is ultimately an application. Just as television's most popular bookworm Rory Gilmore once commented, you can't write down Sylvia Plath for all your admiration, because that leads to the question of: "So do you also want to shove your head in an oven?" The more you know about an author, the more you realize that it's incredibly difficult to admire and respect them. I turn to fictional characters and then the trouble begins...
You can't pick something too common, like Hermione Granger (for all her wit and bravery), nor can you pick a character too tortured to truly be respected, like Ender. It has to be a reasonably well established book, can't be so obscure the reference is lost on the examiner, but also can't be so common the choice shows nothing of your personality. Almost all adult characters are deeply flawed in some way (that is, of course, one of the measures by which we hold quality literature these days) and are therefore tricky, complicated choices. Oh, and this choice is in the midst of timed testing.
And so it came to be that Leslie Burke was my choice as character of the decade.
Are you scratching your head? Leslie Burke, Leslie Burke. The girl from Bridge to Terabithia? Yes.
Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books I like recommending to just about every kid I come across. It's far older than I am and by the time I read it, it had shown that it could survive generation shifts with kids still appreciating it. Heck, even scenes like all the kids wondering at the fact that Leslie's family doesn't own a TV set are still relevant today. It's a story suited for both boys and girls, tough and sporty at times while magical and emotional at others. More to the point, it's a well-written book with believable, breathing children characters that handles difficult topics with ease.
Back to Leslie. The tragic heroine of Bridge to Terabithia, the imaginative, spunky, sporty, intelligent and all-over adventurer Leslie. Independent by the standards of the town she lives in, unconventional as compared to Jess (the primary character in the book), and fiercely driven, she is given the rare opportunity of playing out only childhood virtues, never reaching adulthood faults. Her flat curiosity in religion, for instance, is intriguing - she does not seek it for herself, but wonders at the lure it poses for others around her. She is nonchalant (we must assume, based on her character) when posed with the childish question, "But what if you die?", still clearly detached from the standard beliefs that bind the other characters. Hers is a world built on imagination and creativity of her own. She needs little else.
The problem is that precisely because Leslie cannot grow up, nor can she develop much in the confines of a children's book, she is almost too good to be true. Her good nature is sincere, but innocent. Her attempts at bonding with the school bully fixate around the fact that she's willing to talk to her, to hear of her troubles. But what if Leslie was only a few years older and the trouble appeared to her as dark as it truly is? With a childish innocence, Leslie can help and coax the anger out of a young woman who, given the few facts we have, has every right to be angry. If she understood the gravity of the situation, would she be able to help quite as much? I very much doubt it.
Even so, I can think of few characters who even ten years down the line have affected me so, without having had to reread the book dozens of times (once or twice, perhaps, but not much more... I'm due for a reread). If ever a young girl to set an example for boys and girls everywhere, it is the figure who is marked by tragedy, whose good nature, spunk and imagination can inspire just about every child. It should not be so surprising, then, that it's Leslie Burke's character who I respect and admire. Even if I seemed to outgrow her a long time ago.