Thursday, December 13, 2018

Reading Through History: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson (1980)

Sara Louise Bradshaw and her family, including her beautiful, well-liked twin sister, Caroline, live on the island of Rass in the Chesapeake Bay in 1941. Sara Louise feels strongly jealous of her sister and perceives that everyone in her family caters only to Caroline and never goes out of the way to look out for Sara Louise's needs.  It is not until Sara Louise is an adult herself that she begins to emerge from the shadow behind which she has always hidden, and to come into her own.

The thing I liked most about this book seems to be an aspect of the story that a lot of readers miss: Sara Louise is an unreliable narrator when it comes to her family. Though she very clearly believes that her sister, Caroline, has received special treatment far beyond what her parents have done for her, and though she feels very slighted, there is not much evidence outside of Sara Louise's own mind that her parents don't actually love her as much as her sister, or value her as a part of their family. In fact, one of the lessons of the story seems to be that Sara Louise's dwelling on her feelings of jealousy toward her sister has been a waste of her energy and has clouded her judgment. I was shocked when I read multiple reviews online from readers who thought that Sara Louise's parents had neglected her. I never felt that way at all when I was reading, and according to a piece in her essay collection, The Spying Heart, Paterson didn't want me to feel that way, even though she recognized that some readers would not catch onto the fact that Sara Louise does not have an accurate view of her family's treatment of her.

I was also surprised by the number of online reviews that express abject hatred for Sara Louise. She's not always likable, and she does seem to complain a lot, but frankly, anyone who has been an adolescent girl who doesn't quite fit in has also gone through a phase where she wasn't completely likable 100% of the time. If anything, Sara Louise's flaws make her a more believable character, and a more interesting one. I fell right into her point of view and read straight through the book in a single evening, so engaging did I find her narration, as well as all of Paterson's gorgeous descriptions of the island of Rass and all of the Bradshaw family. Really, it is the imagery of this book that makes it so distinctive, much more than any of the characters.

This book is written at a higher reading level than the author's The Great Gilly Hopkins or Bridge to Terabithia, both of which felt strongly to me like books for fourth and fifth graders.  Based on that, and the subject matter, which involves the kind of intense feelings kids often have during puberty, I'd say it's best read during the middle school years, between the ages of 12 and 14. I also think Jacob Have I Loved and Bright Island by Mabel Robinson (1937) would making an interesting pairing to compare and contrast, especially since both are Newbery winners, and both are set in island communities. The more I read of Katherine Paterson's work, the more I appreciate her as an author. This book has renewed my interest in her writing and made me want to focus on getting some more of her titles read.

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