Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson, was published in 1980 by HarperCollins.
“Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated….” With her grandmother’s taunt, Louise knew that she, like the biblical Esau, was the despised elder twin. Caroline, her selfish younger sister, was the one everyone loved. Growing up on a tiny Chesapeake Bay island in the early 1940s, angry Louise reveals how Caroline robbed her of everything: her hopes for schooling, her friends, her mother, even her name. While everyone pampered Caroline, Wheeze (her sister’s name for her) began to learn the ways of the watermen and the secrets of the island, especially of old Captain Wallace, who had mysterious returned after fifty years. The war unexpectedly gave this independent girl a change to fulfill her childish dream to work as a waterman alongside her father. But the dream did not satisfy the woman she was becoming. Alone and unsure, Louise began to fight her way to a place where Caroline could not reach.
Jacob Have I Loved is written by the same author as Bridge to Terabithia, a book I still vividly remember and another Newbery Medal winner that I’ll be reading at some point. Another of her books, The Great Gilly Hopkins, won a Newbery Honor. So, basically, Katherine Paterson’s books are good and she won a lot of awards for them.
However, I must say, I was disappointed by Jacob Have I Loved. I think it was because the underpinning of the novel, the perceived favoritism of Caroline that affects pretty much everything Louise does, seemed more like Louise was overreacting to small things than actual favoritism. To me, Louise seemed overly melodramatic in places, such as when Caroline would say something normal and Louise would suddenly start yelling or storm out of the house. I understand that they’re teenagers, but Louise didn’t really do much to make me sympathize with her feelings of jealousy and invisibility.
It got a little better once more solid things than Louise’s perceptions were involved, such as Call and Captain Wallace, and Paterson better communicated Louise’s sense of always being overshadowed, but still, several times during the novel I thought Louise was being more ridiculous than Caroline and certainly was more unlikeable.
Perhaps that was Paterson’s point, though, that Louise was ultimately unhappy with her own life and was blaming it on whoever or whatever was in reach, such as her sister. In which case, Louise’s behavior makes more sense, I suppose.
There were also several parts of the book I found inexplicably strange, such as Louise’s infatuation with Captain Wallace (??) that had virtually no explanation and then dissipated into nothing, used only as a vehicle for Louise’s grandmother to say mean things and scare Louise, and the ending, which I sort of understood when I read it, then read someone describing how bittersweet it was, and then read the ending again only to wonder from where in the world that person was getting any of his descriptions. Either the ending communicated something that I clearly missed or the person inferred a whole lot from two pages that wasn’t actually there.
I can see why Jacob Have I Loved won the Newbery; it’s exactly the sort of adolescent coming-of-age novel that these sorts of awards seem to attract. But I didn’t quite buy Louise’s characterization and for a lot of the book I barely sympathized with her, seeing her instead as a melodramatic teenager who needed to stop blowing things out of proportion. It got a little better by the end, but overall I barely enjoyed Jacob Have I Loved. Mostly, I think it’s strange and not something I would immediately recommend.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Swearing, some nasty insinuations made by the grandmother
Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic
“I’d want to pay you something,” the Captain said. My ears stretched practically to the top of my head, and I opened my mouth to utter a humble thanks.
“Oh, no,” said Call. “We couldn’t think of taking money from a neighbor.”
Who couldn’t? But for once in his life Call talked faster than I could think, and the two of them snatched away my time and energy and sold me into slavery before I had breath to hint that I wouldn’t be insulted by a small tip every now and then.