Jacob Have I Loved
By Katherine Paterson
Publisher: HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
Current & Digital Publisher: HarperCollins
Reading Level: Ages 13 & Up
Jennifer duBois writes:
Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved follows the story of two sisters growing up on the Chesapeake Bay in the 1940s: Louise “Wheeze” Bradshaw—who is, in her own estimation, homely and unmemorable—and her twin sister Caroline—who is, in everyone’s estimation, talented and adored. Louise suspects that her fate was sealed at birth, when she had the misfortune of being born healthy—left “clean and cold and in the basket”—as delicate Caroline struggled for life. The preciousness Caroline’s unlikely survival confers on her seems to follow both sisters through their childhoods: Caroline grows to be beautiful, a talented singer, the kind of person for whom other people like to extend themselves—while Louise believes herself to be too average to merit particular attention and remains too resolutely sturdy to require particular care. As they grow up, Louise defines herself increasingly in relation to her sister, turning away from all that Caroline represents and that Louise feels she cannot have: because Caroline is granted favors, Louise declines to ask for any; because Caroline is desired, Louise believes herself to be undesirable; because Caroline is loved, Louise decides that she is not. This rejection is part self-pity, part fatalistic pride, and part the dawning emergence of the stubborn self-sufficiency that will wind up propelling Louise through her own life—as she goes on to work as a crabber during the war, attend medical school, and eventually become a midwife in Appalachia.
Louise’s journey is a solitary one, and this solitude is part of what makes one of the book’s most beloved scenes—after Louise has listened to Caroline sing “I Wonder As I Wander” in a school concert—so beautiful and so heart-wrenching.
Caroline had sung [O Holy Night] last year. Everyone would remember. But this year Mr Rice had chosen a different solo for Caroline, a very simple one… Mr Rice’s hands went down, and from the centre of the back row Caroline’s voice came suddenly like a single beam of light across the darkness.
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
Why Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander – out under the sky.
It was a lonely, lonely sound, but so clear, so beautiful that I tightened my arms against my sides to keep from shaking, perhaps shattering. Then we were all singing, better than we had all night, better than we ever had, suddenly judged, damned, and purged in Caroline’s light.
She sang once more by herself, repeating the words of the first verse so quietly that I knew surely I would shatter when she went up effortlessly, sweetly, and oh, so softly, to the high G, holding it just a few seconds longer than humanly possible and then returning to the last few notes and to silence.
When we left the gymnasium, the stars were so bright, they pulled me up into the sky like powerful magnets. I walked, my head back…dizzied by the winking brilliance of the night.
Listening to “I Wonder As I Wander,” it’s impossible not to feel the exquisite loneliness of that moment in the gymnasium: the loneliness of the solitary voice “like a single beam of light across the darkness,” the loneliness of the song’s wanderer, and the loneliness of Louise, who is alone in her secret unexpressed anger as well as her secret astounded joy. Listening to Caroline sing, Louise finds that she is dazzled by her sister—dazzled the way everyone else is, dazzled in spite of her own resentment, dazzled even though nobody notices. In learning to allow love and awe to exist alongside bitterness and sorrow—and by realizing that all of this matters even if nobody else knows or sees it—Louise is beginning to acquire the knowledge and resilience that will ultimately sustain her.
Jacob Have I Loved takes its title from the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau, the beloved twin and the loathed twin, which Louise’s senile grandmother invokes in a cruel moment—and when I was a young reader, identifying perhaps a tad too fervently with Louise’s sense of invisibility, I may have taken the parallel at face value. But I look back now and realize I’m not at all sure we’re meant to take the reference so straightforwardly. At the end of the book, Louise has learned to believe in, and make use of, her own resources, and she has found that the world is actually very glad to have them. The most important story for Louise, it turns out, is the one she tells herself.
Jennifer duBois’ first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was honored by the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 program and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction.
Chelsey Philpot writes:
Dear Sara Louise,
“Someday, this too will pass.” I don’t know where the proverb comes from, but I wish I could claim the words as my own. They are so very true and so very much what you don’t want to hear when you are thirteen, eighteen, or even eighty years old.
Though you may have felt more than once that your twin sister Caroline has been given everything and that “she was so sure, so present, so easy, so light and gold, while I was all gray and shadow,” maybe in the future you’ll see that growing up on an island in the Chesapeake Bay during World War II was lonely and confusing for her as well. Year by year, day by day, storm by storm, Rass Island is slowly being reclaimed by the sea. Given that the land is saturated by loss––the loss of lives during the war, the loss of islanders to the mainland, the loss of women to suffocating proprieties they did not choose––its disappearance is almost a blessing. But when the island is gone and your parents, too, it will only be you and Caroline. You will only have each other.
At one low point, when you were feeling frustrated and angry, you thought, “I was quite sure I was crazy, and it was amazing that as soon as I admitted it, I became quite calm. There was nothing I could do about it.” This is not craziness––because if the desire for freedom meant you were crazy then the world would be overrun with mad women, indeed. Do not confuse wanting more from life than what you see in front of you with insanity.
I will not make you untenable guarantees. Even as an adult, the loneliness of being an island does not ever go away. However, you find that loneliness can become something better. It can be solitude.
I can, nonetheless, make you some promises: You will travel. You will accomplish great things. You will see the mountains. You will find love. You will discover a life of your own separate from Rass Island, Caroline, and all that you’ve known, and it will be a triumph because it will be a life of your choosing.
Your friend the Captain put it far better than I could when he told you, “You don’t need anything given to you. You can make your own chances. But first you have to know what you’re after.”
Thank you for expressing your pain, confusion, and hope so honestly and beautifully. For sharing your stories with all of us who have (at one time or another) found ourselves somewhere we loved but could not stay.
Chelsey Philpot is a book reviews editor at School Library Journal. Her debut YA novel will be published by HarperCollins.
Children’s Books, Fiction (Hardcover) Finalists That Year:
- Paula Fox for A Place Apart
- Katherine Paterson for Jacob Have I Loved
- Ouida Sebestyen for Far From Home
- Jan Slepian for The Alfred Summer
Children’s Books, Fiction (Hardcover) Winner That Year: Betsy Byars for The Night Swimmers
Judges That Year: Not Available
The Year in Literature: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson won the Newbery Medal.
More Information: Paterson won the National Book Award for Children’s Literature in 1977 for the hardcover edition of The Master Puppeteer and in 1979 for the hardcover edition of The Great Gilly Hopkins. She was also a Finalist in 1980 for the paperback edition of The Great Gilly Hopkins and in 1982 for the paperback editions of both Jacob Have I Loved and The Master Puppeteer. Jacob Have I Loved also won the Newbery Medal.
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