“Jacob Have I Loved” by Katherine Paterson
Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1980, 215 pages, Grades 8-12.
One of the most puzzling phrases in the Old Testament can be found in the Book of Malachi 1:2-3 in which we read “I have loved Jacob but have hated Esau.”
The Calvinists used this as a foundational text for God using predestination to damn souls. Yet, St. Paul will argue against this position in Romans 9:13-15 as he speaks of the special destiny of Israel and the compassion of God. But ultimately, this phrase will always remain something of a mystery.
The theme of the younger twin displacing the older has been a historical theme in literature for centuries. Katherine Paterson takes this idea and presents it in a modern day American setting. The name of her award-winning novel is “Jacob Have I Loved.”
Twin girls are born during the Great Depression in a small Chesapeake Bay village of Rass. The oldest twin’s name is Sara Louise and her sister’s name is Caroline. Soon people drop the oldest twin’s first name of Sara and commonly use her second name, Louise.
It is clear from the very beginning that Caroline is special and needs great care in her infancy. As she grows up, her stunning beauty and immense musical gifts become apparent to everyone, including Louise.
Caroline is quite content and takes for granted that she is beautiful, exceptional and admired. She has no need for a self-esteem workshop for she has accepted her many gifts and is, after all, Caroline.
At the same time, Louise is a rawboned tomboy and feels vastly inferior to her exquisite sister. Not realizing her own gifts, Louise constantly compares herself to Caroline and always comes away feeling miserable and begins hating Caroline. When she enters her teenage years, more problems develop for Louise. Her body begins changing and she doesn’t have any idea why she begins having sexual desires. These thoughts frighten Louise and she thinks she is sinful. Maybe God is just cursing her like Esau.
But Louise meets a neighbor, “The Captain.” Finally, Louise feels that someone can appreciate her for herself. The Captain supports Louise in a time of great emotional fragility and she begins overcoming her fears. A hurricane crashes into the Maryland coast at the same time Louise begins to understand what life is all about. As Louise helps rebuild the village after the storm’s destruction, her own tattered life begins to reform.
The Captain and her parents help her find her courage and confidence. They empower Louise. How do they do this and where does it lead Louise?
This is a great coming of age novel about the human heart. The anguish that Louise endures is heart wrenching. In the novel, Paterson captures many common emotions found among siblings. It particularly speaks to the many fears and troubles girls suffer during their volatile teenage years: Am I pretty enough? Why am I not more popular? If someone likes my only friend, will they still like me? Why has my body changed so much? Who am I anyway and what do I want from life? Paterson captures these feelings and draws out painful but triumphal answers. Louise’s great trials are the foundation of her heroic accomplishments at the end of the novel.
“Jacob Have I Loved” was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1981 for the “Most Distinguished Contribution to Children’s Literature” by the American Library Association. The reading level for this book starts in the eighth grade, but the themes in the novel can apply to adults. Paterson treats the lonely, isolated Louise with great empathy and compassion. Her final triumph over such long odds may leave readers in tears. “Jacob Have I Loved” is a literary masterpiece. I hope you are as moved by the novel as I was.