Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer/reviewer/blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads Katherine Paterson's 1980 novel 'Jacob Have I Loved', the story of a young girl, Sara Louise, whom nobody likes as much as her twin sister.
As soon as the snow melts, I will go to Rass and fetch my mother. At Crisfield I'll board the ferry, climbing down into the cabin where the women always ride, but after forty minutes of sitting on the hard cabin bench, I'll stand up to peer out of the high forward windows, straining for the first site of my island.
Let's all just start crying now. Seriously, I don't care, don't even read this review — just get up, tell your boss it has to happen and leave work and go home and cry. We are, after all, looking at the works of Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia and The Great Gilly Hopkins, winner of two Newbery Medals and two National Book Awards, daughter of Chinese missionaries (did you know that? I didn't know that). Attention must be paid.
Which reminds me: Paterson has yet to receive the kind of acclaim in the public imagination that someone like Judy Blume or Madeline L'Engle or even Paula Danziger receives, and I'm not sure why. (She is on 19,000 school reading lists, but still.) Perhaps because it's hard to have a hook for a writer who brilliantly depicts the grand psychic disarrangement of childhood without being remotely funny, heartwarming, or illuminating of the state of girlhood during some stultifying historical period.
Whatever! Back to crying. Jacob Have I Loved is the story of Sara Louise Bradshaw, christened ineluctably by her fraternal twin, Caroline, as "Wheeze," to her eternal consternation. Caroline is not only generally agreed to be lovely, but also possessed of the kind shatteringly beautiful voice that makes others pay attention ("Caroline is the kind of person other people sacrifice for as a matter of course") and what Louise takes to be callous disregard for others. (I can now read this only as Caroline's rare — but fair — lack of adolescent self-hatred.) Louise is, of course, nearly paralyzed with envy of her sister — although it's less pure envy that rage and shame at how publicly pale in comparison she must seem to everybody else, including even her best friend Cal, a chubby bespectacled nerd.
They both live on Rass, a teeny island on the Chesapeake off the Eastern Shore, where their father crabs and their mother, a former mainland schoolteacher, watches over them. Their grandmother, who is not even vaguely kindly but instead suffering from the early stages of dementia, is given to following Louise around the house and triumphantly offering damning passages from the Bible:
"I struggled to pry the lid of a can of tea leaves, aware that my grandmother had come up behind me. I stiffened at the sound of her hoarse whisper.
"Romans nine 13," she said. "As it is written, 'Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.'"
That's totes going to help you work through that insecurity thing about how no one even remembers your BIRTH because your sister almost died and they were all worried about her, especially when your grandmother whips that out right at the moment you're dying over your weird inappropriate crush on a 56-year-old sailor that's returned to the island and you know that no one, ever, not in a million years, would give up their life's savings to let you go study voice in Baltimore. And also: "Wheeze."
What's astonishing about this book is how unflinching Paterson is about the pain Louise suffers by her second-best status without somehow devolving into V.C. Andrews territory (NOT that there's anything wrong with that, OBVS) or making Louise's frustration seem like anything but the unattractive, festering blister that it is. Yes, Louise's fundamental rage 'n pain is something that could probably be handled through a triple dose of CBT, Paxil and a round of family therapy nowadays. But the few minutes before Caroline exited the womb after her are, as Louise sees it, "the only time in my life I was ever the center of anyone's attention." Louise is both the main proponent and victim of this belief, but it will take her until adulthood to realize that.
Time for memory triggers! I realize increasingly as I do these reviews I am just always fighting the urge to type the whole book. I'll try to restrain to one scroll-down:
"Old Sooks just get soft and die." "Wee paws for station identification." A silk dress with cheap lotion rubbed over chapped hands. Tinned milk. Sweeping dried salt and sand out of the corner. "She answered her 'Call'." "Get it, Wheeze?" Paregoric. Juilliard. "It took me twenty minutes to chop it down and 50 years to put it back." "Then...bam! February hits you right in the stomach." "God in heaven's been raising you for this valley since the day you were born." "Thousands were suffering and dying when Christ was born, Louise."
(That last one I must confess I am constantly quoting because I forget it wasn't said by WINSTON CHURCHILL or somebody.)
And I can't end the review without glossing the two KEY CRY SCENES FOR YOU, so you can join me in my sorry state. The first, you will recall, takes place when Louise is washing the windows with her mother, assailing her for making her life in such a godforsaken place. Her mother responds:
"I chose the island," she said. "I chose to leave my own people and build a life for myself somewhere else. I certainly wouldn't deny you that same choice. But," and her eyes help me if her arms did not, "oh, Louise, we will miss you, your father and I."
I wanted so much to believe her. "Will you really?" I asked. "As much as you miss Caroline?"
"More," she said, reaching up and ever so lightly smoothing her hair with her fingertips.
WAAAAA AND THEN SHE LEAVES AND OKAY THERE'S MORE. The next one (spoiler spoiler) occurs when Louise has become a nurse-midwife and moved to Virginia. She's on a case with a teen mother who is having twins, and one is completely blue and about to die:
"Where is the other twin?" I asked, suddenly stricken. I had completely forgotten him. In my anxiety for his sister, I had completely forgotten him. "Where have you put him?"
"In the basket." She looked at me, puzzled. "He's sleeping."
"You should hold him," I said. "Hold him as much as you can. Or let his mother hold him."
AND, BY CORRECTING THE MISTAKES OF THE PAST, SHE BECOMES HER OWN REDEEMER!
All right, enough crying for the day. Cheer up. On a totally unrelated note, I just want to point that this is one of my favorite covers of all time and I always thought Louise looked prettier than Caroline. So there.
Earlier: Then Again, Maybe I Won't: Close Your Eyes, And Think Of Jersey City
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