This discussion guide was first published on Culturewatch.org.
Ginny Howard is sixteen – a contented, carefree teenager who is a talented artist. She lives near a Welsh coastal town with her father. Her mother, a Haitian artist, died when Ginny was a baby. The summer holidays are about to start and her great friend Andy, the only other young black person in the village, has come home from catering college for the summer. Andy and his friend Dafydd plan to live in a grotty caravan in a field near the beach. Ginny will be working at the café run by the parents of her best friend, Rhiannon. Life is great.
But then it all begins to unravel. Ginny comes home from school one day to find a social worker from Liverpool talking to her father. Ginny is terrified that someone has accused her father of abuse and that she’s going to be put into care. Then Rhiannon reports that her estranged sister, Helen, has been in contact out of the blue – she has got to know Ginny’s dad and wants to know about Ginny. In particular, Helen wants to know if Ginny was adopted and if it was true that Ginny’s dad has been in prison.
Slowly Ginny begins to become suspicious that her father has been keeping some big secrets from her. Her fears are confirmed when she discovers she has a half brother whom her dad had never mentioned. What’s worse, the boy’s mother is dying of cancer and he’s likely to disturb Ginny’s peace and tranquility by coming to live with them. Ginny begins to become uncertain of her identity and her place in the world, uncertain of everything. Gradually she begins to piece together the story of her life and the tragedies that were part of her childhood in order to find some answers.
Philip Pullman first came to fame through his trilogy, His Dark Materials, but he had already found success as a children’s author with a wide range of books including adventure stories (the Sally Lockhart quartet, etc.), fairy stories (I Was A Rat and others) and teen novels like The Broken Bridge.
In common with many of Philip Pullman’s books, The Broken Bridge has a strong sense of place. It’s set in the area in which Pullman spent his own teenage years. Like Ginny he lived outside the village and was free to roam all over the countryside. It was at this time that he discovered the visual arts. He says, ‘I drew obsessively, the landscape, mainly: the massive rounded hills, the wide pearly estuary, the tumbled sand dunes, the dry stone walls, the ancient church half-buried in the sand. I learned that landscape by drawing it, and I came to care for it with a lover’s devotion. Later in The Broken Bridge I wrote about a girl making the same discoveries, loving and drawing the same landscape. Many other strands went into the making of that book, but what lay at its heart was love; it’s a love letter to a landscape.’ (www.philip-pullman.com)
As in many of Philip Pullman’s books, one of the central themes in The Broken Bridge is growing up. Ginny has to readjust the way she thinks about herself and everything else as she discovers the truth about her past. Like so many of his protagonists, she makes a painful transition from innocence to experience and wisdom.
Questions for discussion
- What elements of The Broken Bridge did you feel worked well? Were there aspects which you didn’t feel worked well? Why?
- How did the sense of location in The Broken Bridge affect you as you read it? Does the knowledge that this was the landscape in which Philip Pullman grew up change the way you respond to the book?
- How do Ginny’s feelings about her ‘kingdom’ change during the book? Why?
- Why is it so important to Ginny that her mother was an artist? What does she learn from seeing her mother’s paintings?
- Why does voodoo become so significant to Ginny? What do you think is going on when she has her experience of Baron Samedi?
- Is Rhiannon right to say that people can be kind or sexy but not both? How does this comment affect the way Ginny views other people and herself?
- Which relationships in The Broken Bridge would you describe as good? What makes them good? What things in this story make relationships go wrong?
- Why is Andy’s friendship so important to Ginny? How does he help (or hinder) her in her journey of self-discovery?
- How would you describe Ginny’s father? Do you think he was right or wrong to keep Ginny’s past secret? Does his past excuse his actions or simply explain them (and is there a difference)?
- How did you feel as Ginny discovered more secrets about her past? Do you think Ginny responded to these revelations in the right way? Why/Why not?
- What does Ginny learn from her encounters with her grandparents and with Joe Chicago?
- What is the significance of the broken bridge? Why was she so affected by it, and convinced that the story was about her? What do you think about Ginny’s way of making sense of the story?
It was art that had taken her mother away, because art had no conscience; it demanded, it was cruel, it took what it wanted brutally and paid no heed to the consequences. Or (as Rhiannon would say) it wasn’t kind, it was sexy. (p. 286)
- What does Ginny discover about herself as a person during the course of the book? In what ways does she grow up?
- Ginny feels that artistic talent is the most important thing in the world (p. 287). But she recalls her mother’s words that ‘painting isn’t the most important thing, but it’ll have to do till we find out what it is’ (p. 249). What is the most important thing for you? Is it also something that will have to do until you find out what really is the most important thing? How do you respond to the Christian claim that nothing is more important than a relationship with Jesus Christ?