In the early 1980s, sad stories about girls living on the Chesapeake Bay were prime canidates to win the Newbery Medal. But unlike Dicey's Song which won in 1983, Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved starts bleak and never lets up. This is one of the darkest novels to win the Newbery, and probably one of the darkest novels ever written for a younger audience.
It's also very beautiful, the way sad songs are often much better than happy ones. Paterson is an excellent writer, and she evokes crab and oyster fishing in the 1940s, eccentric characters, loneliness, and the Chesapeake Bay with equal sympathy and elegance. Jacob Have I Loved is one of those wonderful books you can enjoy in its constituent parts as much as in its entirety.
All this emphasis on the book's dark character might imply there's no humor in it. That's certainly not the case (though the humor gets less and less as the story progresses). Lines like this abound: "I tried to smile, but my face had too much basic integrity for me even to pretend I had heard something funny."
This line underscores an important fact—even the funny or happy parts of this book are tinged with sorrow. The title is taken from Romans 9:13, in which God speaks of the elect and the non-elect in terms of Jacob and Esau: "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hardened." This small phrase sums up the life of the novel's protagonist and narrator, at least from her perspective.
Louise is thirteen when the story opens, as is her twin sister Caroline (though Louise was born first by a few minutes). Everyone's attention has always been directed to Caroline. She has the weaker constitution, the more beautiful voice, and the sunnier disposition, all which have conspired to make her much better loved than her sister.
Who isn't plain, or unintelligent, or mean, or any of the other things that usually plague the unpopular. It would make it easier on Louise if she was inferior to her sister, it would at least explain the way people fawn on Caroline and all but ignore her. But it seems that God has simply not chosen Louise, and he has chosen Caroline.
As Louise moves from her teens to adulthood, more and more is ripped from her hands. Her sister takes everything from her—the old Captain who befriends Louise and her best friend Call, Louise's hand lotion, even Call himself. Louise responds with more and more bitterness, and those around her seem less and less able to deal with her outbursts.
Everything that happens is significant. The hurricane that threatens to destroy Rass Island (where Louise lives), the coming of old Hiram Wallace, the outbreaks of crazy old Grandma Bradshaw, Caroline's pursuit of music and voice lessons—all these shed light on Louise's predicament, and move her toward self-discovery.
The book ends on what Paterson means to be a note of hope. Louise finally discovers herself, leaves home, and becomes successful at nurse-midwifery and being a wife and mother. Unfortunately, she also discovers that God and the Methodism in which she was raised aren't part of who she is, and though the very last lines imply this might not be the case, the novel seems to end with Louise's only hope in her own achievements and none in God.
It's a sad way to end a sad book. Paterson is a master of making us empathize with Louise, and by the time she's finished we feel emotionally worn out, with not much hope for Louise or anyone else. Her characterizations are utterly lifelike and realistic, and if you make it through your interactions with them without some tears, you might want to get your ducts checked.
Like so many other Newbery books, Jacob Have I Loved isn't best for elementary or middle school readers. It's best for those who have enough years behind them to have perspective on youth. Paterson explores some themes common to adolescents like puberty and uncertainty about the future, but she does so looking back, not in the moment.
For adults, this book definitely rates five stars. Despite the hollowness of many of Louise's conclusions, Paterson finds exactly the right notes of loss and realism. For kids, however, it's too complex and too filled with sadness to make a lot of sense. Some of the last pages of the book talk about Louise's medical work among Appalachian farmers who get drunk and beat their wives, and there isn't any relief from this image before the narrative ends.
At one point, Louise makes a comment about Captain Hiram Wallace: "It didn't seem right to me that the captain should be robbed of the chance to tell his own tragedy. He had nothing else to call his own. He should have at least had his story." This seems to be Louise's attitude by the conclusion of her own tale, and she's told every word. Will it save her?
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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