Each Sunday, I post a brief introduction to a collection of poetry I've been loving. I include one poem that I think really sings. No review. No need. If it's here, you'll know I recommend it. If you have one to recommend (yours or someone else's), send it along. I'll do my best to be here every Sunday.
I've been out-of-the-loop, out-of-sorts, out-of-my-mind, out-of-words for weeks on weeks now, missing the April visit of Ted Kooser's The Wheeling Year entirely. As I creep my way back into practice, here is a taste of April and the piece of May that spoke most directly to me, and I'll be back next week with a new collection.
After a long illness, rain idly brushes the roof with the back of its hand. Only the fingernails tough, and they touch ever so lightly. I remember a woman who late one evening talked to me about dying, about how easy it might be, and as she talked she very slowly turned her palm up and let it relax as if to catching something falling out of the darkness.
Oh, melancholy, how poor I would be without you drawing my attention to this or that. Yesterday, it was the wild plum blossoms along the brief road to today, and today it's this rain that will rain only once. Each grain of sand on each shingle lights for an instant, like a window across a black lake, and then the tiny shade is drawn, as time strikes the wet panes and glances away. Tomorrow, too, you will be waiting with something to show me. That time, for example, when you dipped a spoon into the plain water of an ordinary day, then lifted it, salty with tears, to my lips.
In 2022, the 100th Newbery Medal will be awarded. In the months leading up to that event, I plan to cover all 99 prior winners. I launched this project with some background on the award and with commentary on the first medal winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Today I take up the 59th recipient: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson.
L: the 2020 edition
Below: the edition I owned as a child
In 1980, the year Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved was published, the Rubik's Cube, CNN, Post-In Notes, and Pac-Man all made their debut. The average house cost $68,700. John Lennon was shot, and Mt. St. Helens erupted. Regarding the Newbery Medal, the details are as follows:
Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Peterson (Crowell) Honor Books:
The Fledgling by Jane Langton (Harper)
A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L'Engle (Farrar)
Members of 1981 Newbery Medal Selection Committee: Chair Ginny Moore Kruse, Mary P. Aiken, Joan E. Cole, Barbara H. Fischer, Paul Heins, Bradley Sue Howell, Clara O. Jackson, Sara L. Miller, Alice P. Naylor, Naomi Noyes, Susan Roman, Shelton L. Root, Jr. Diane M. Thompson, Thalia-Manon Tissot, L. Frances Ware.*
The problem with beloved older books is that, well, we tend to forget they are old. Place them on a shelf next to Pac-Man and a fifty cent loaf of bread, and it becomes more clear. Without those reminders, the books we read as children can hang around, feeling evergreen even though our memory of them is spare and clouded by nostalgia. Understanding that tendency, I picked up Jacob Have I Loved with caution because it was one of my very favorites as a young reader. Would it hold up? The answer, for me, is yes. And also very much no.
Almost violent in its portrayal of sibling jealousy and comparison, this book rang true for me as a young reader perhaps because, like the protagonist Louise, I was (am) the older sibling to a golden younger sister. What Paterson gets so very right in this book is the scraping woundedness that can be a part of adolescence. Twin sisters Sara Louise and Caroline are growing up on a fairly isolated island in Chesapeake Bay, and readers get to know that place and its people through the eyes of Louise (or Wheeze as her sister dubbed her early in life). Countless readers and the author herself have noted the apt connection between the isolation of an island and the loneliness that often accompanies young adulthood; for me, however, the sea is the better metaphor -- this time, mirroring the overlapping constancy of sisterhood.
Caroline is not evil, she does not torment her sister or gloat about her successes. She is kind and understandably beloved. Even when we see her through Louise's bruised eyes, she is no villain. But when Caroline begins to receive all the things Louise wants for herself - praise, boarding school, the friendship and patronage of the Captain, Call's affection - Louise is hurt, untethered, and convinced of her own insignificance. In truth, most of what Louise wants (and Caroline gets) is freedom, a sense that she can move independently through the world, away from the cloying familiarity of the island and out of the shadow of her sister.
So, yes, Jacob Have I Loved is about jealousy and sibling relationships and the painful intimacies involved. But it is really about growing up. What Sara Louise wants is what every young person wants: the freedom to become fully who you are, to be wholly visible and loved. Throughout the book, Louise is nagged by a need to claim or own things. What could seem merely natural first-person narration about "my mother," "my island, "my skiff" becomes pronounced as you get to know Louise and see her perched on the edge of so much wanting. She wants to be the star of so many stories, and when she isn't, it is often Caroline who is. When the twins were born, the story goes, it was Caroline who was weak and needy, and sturdy Louise was left alone in the basket as they tended to her twin. Where it is Call and Louise who sneak on their bellies to spy on the mysterious stranger and make friends with The Captain and discover Auntie Braxton collapsed on her floor surrounded by her many cats, it is Caroline who swoops in and manages to get all of the cats adopted around the island while Auntie Braxton recovers in the hospital.
When the last cat was placed, we went back to Auntie Braxton's. The Captain had put chairs on top of tables and was beginning to mop the floor with hot water and disinfectant. Call told him the whole story of Caroline's feat, house by house, cat by cat. They laughed and imitated the befuddled women at the door. Caroline through in imitations of the happy, drunken cats while the Captain and Call hooted with delight, and I felt as I always did when someone told the story of my birth.
Again we see Louise wanting to shine, wanting someone to see her as the hero of the story. Which is, of course, what Paterson has done. By giving Louise full voice, all the other characters shrink to fit her field of vision. So we see Louise's longing, and we recoil at her attraction to the much older Captain; we see her hatred of her grandmother, and we cringe at the naive missteps she takes along the way. We see all of Louise, and it is not always lovely. In her acceptance speech, Paterson says,
Novels, I have learned, tend to come out of the struggle with the untamed beast
and this wild quality is shown in Louise and wrestle into adulthood.
If this book were published today, it would likely be classified as YA, and while books on the older end of the Newbery range ("up to and including fourteen") can be singled out with great success, today's award trends in the 10-12 range. Jacob Have I Loved, with its adult narrator looking back at herself as a teenager and tracing her story through to adulthood, marriage, and family, would not likely be included in the Newbery discussions. Another possibly limiting factor is the undercurrent of Christian faith in this book. Paterson, daughter of missionaries and active in her faith, makes the Methodist beliefs of the islanders a central character in the book, perhaps most pronounced in the figure of Louise and Caroline's grandmother who spits Bible verses at her family, often in anger and judgment.
Paterson's website includes an FAQ section with a question about the "presence (or lack) of religious content, specifically Christian, in recent children's literature (say the last 15 years or so)." Not knowing when this question was written, that timeframe can be interpreted in many ways, but many would assume it is born out of an increased desire in the world of publishing to swing wide the doors of welcome for books that do not feature WASP narratives. Whether there's been an actual decline in Christian content might rightly be doubted, but Paterson offers the following response:
Self-consciously Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) writing will be sectarian and tend to propaganda and therefore have very little to say to persons outside that particular faith community. The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like fancy dress.
Is this true? What does it mean to be "self-consciously" faithful? As a WASP girl raised in the Methodist church, I am the opposite of "outside" the community of Paterson's novel, so it is no surprise it might have much to say to me. But what does it say now -- and perhaps the more important question, what did it say then -- to readers "outside that particular faith community?" What did the 1981 Newbery committee have to overlook or set aside to land on these three titles, all featuring white girls, written by white women, two of which wrote openly about their Christian faith? Or perhaps it is a question of what the publishing industry failed to produce, leaving the committee no choice?
A 2008 report revealed that there were fewer Black or Hispanic protagonists in Newbery medal winners from 1980-2007 than there had been from 1951-1979. Then ALSC president Pat Scales is quoted as saying children deserve a more "global" view reflective of their experiences. Though the shift in attention is certainly appreciated, today's readers are left wondering about all the stories that we missed celebrating in those years.
* 1981 was the first year since the 1937 establishment of the Caldecott Award that separate committees were formed for each award. Thus, this committee was only responsible for the Newbery selection.