Katherine Peterson’s novel Jacob Have I Loved was a Newberry Medal winner in 1981. Although this book has been on my radar for many years, I was perhaps just a teensy bit too old for it when it was published in 1980, so I didn’t read it then. It is a pretty famous book though, and I figured I should read it. So I did.
The title of the book comes from the bible, Romans 9:13: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” The quote refers to the story of siblings Jacob and Esau and the novel tells the story of siblings Sara Louise and her twin sister, Caroline. The girls live on Rass Island, off the coast of Maryland. Their father is a fisherman; their mother a former school teacher. Their crotchety paternal grandmother also lives with them.
Sara Louise, or Wheeze, is the narrator. She is an adult when the novel opens, returning to Rass Island where her mother still lives. “…it is a pure sorrow to me,” she says, “that, once my mother leaves there will be no one left with the name of Bradshaw. But there were only the two of us, my sister, Caroline, and me, and neither of us could stay.”
The bulk of the story takes place in 1941 and the years that follow. Wheeze, 13, and her best friend, Call, 14, spend their days hunting for crabs. Their little island is isolated and days there are marked by routine – fisherman out on the water early and home late, school and church, the occasional ferry trip to the mainland. Paterson deftly creates a world that will be – for most of its young readers – a place long ago and far away.
While readers may not recognize the time or place, they will most definitely recognize the friction between Wheeze and her sister, the beautiful and musically talented, Caroline. A sickly baby, Wheeze feels that Caroline has been coddled all her life and that in “the story of my sister’s life…I… was allowed a very minor role.”
There is a rare snapshot of the two of us sitting on the front stoop the summer we were a year and a half old. Caroline is tiny and exquisite, her blonde curls framing a face that is glowing with laughter, her arms outstretched to whoever is taking the picture. I am hunched there like a fat dark shadow, my eyes cut sideways toward Caroline, thumb in my mouth…
Wheeze is resentful and jealous, even though Caroline never really seems to give her any reason to be. It’s one of the lovely things about this book, which is remarkable in its stillness. Wheeze isn’t particularly likable, but you grow to love her just the same.
Jacob Have I Loved is without the bells and whistles that marks much of the YA fiction out there today. I would suggest that this is a book better suited to middle school readers, but I think anyone who has ever shared close quarters with a sibling would enjoy this story.