Vision of Self in Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved
Set almost entirely on a fictional Chesapeake Bay island in the mid-to-late 1940s, Jacob Have I Loved chronicles one person's search for and acceptance of self. Although intended for an audience of young adult readers, Katherine Paterson's portrayal of this personal journey is so real that it has achieved universal appeal. The beauty of teaching this Newbery Award-winning classic, then, is that the work is as meaningful to teacher as it is to student, to forty-year old as it is to fourteen-year old.
Jacob Have I Loved takes its title from the Biblical story about Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca. The relationship between the sons is one of jealousy bordering on violence. Esau, the first born, foolishly gives up his birthright out of physical hunger and later loses his rightful blessing as a result of the deceit of his mother and brother. Even God turns against Esau. In Romans 9:13, God says, "Jacob I loved and Esau I hated." Thus Esau is an extremely bitter person who feels so victimized, so angry, that he is believed capable of murder. Jacob, afraid of his brother, leaves, only to return years later to a reconciliation with Esau, who has remained at home assuming all of the responsibilities that would have been his anyway had he received the blessing he deserved.
In Jacob Have I Loved , the parallels to the Jacob-and-Esau story are clear. This is the story of Sara Louise Brad shaw and her twin sister, Caroline. Sara Louise, born first, is healthy and strong whereas Caroline is weak and near death, thus becoming the focus of concern and attention from the start.
I felt cold all over, as though I was the newborn infant a second time, cast aside and forgotten. (p. 18)
The story always left the other twin, the stronger twin, washed and dressed and lying in a basket. Clean and cold and motherless. (p. 19)
These feelings of resentment, having had their inception at birth, continue throughout Sara Louise's youth. She is in a futile situation as she strives to define herself in terms of her sister. Even in their teenage years, Sara Louise feels robbed, victimized, and completely unappreciated. Caroline, on the other hand, with her operatic voice and golden good looks, is smiled on by all, and"Caroline is the kind of person other people sacrifice for as a matter of course" (p. 25).
And sacrifice they do, not only Sara Louise and her parents, but also an island friend who gives Caroline money in order that she may leave the island and attend music school. Thus, Sara Louise, the "Esau figure," is left behind on the island. Caroline's leaving is just as well, because, like the elder twin in the Biblical story, Sara Louise finds herself entertaining thoughts of her sibling's death.
It is only with Caroline's departure from Rass Island that Sara Louise can even begin her search for self. That search must begin at home, for thus far in her life she has seen herself in the role of sacrificer. Although bordering on martyrdom, she does truly feel that her father Truitt, a fisherman, needs her help to make up for the absence of young men during this time of war. There is more to her problem than her need to help her father, however. Sara Louise is almost incapable of moving on towards another phase in her life. Indeed, her vision of herself at this point in her life is tied as inextricably to her vision of her surroundings as it is to her vision of Caroline as the favored child. The island of Rass has come to reflect the island that is her soul. Throughout the course of the novel, we see Sara Louise becoming more and more island-like in her relationship to those around her. Ironically, as she sacrifices for others, she withdraws from them. As she attempts to increase their need of her (thus gaining their attention), she more and more tries to deny her need of them. Needing them, she pushes them away, fortifying her walls of defense. "I was a good oyster in those days. Not even the presence at Christmas time of a radiant, grown-up Caroline could get under my shell" (p.190).
Having spent a year with her father, Truitt, helping him support the family, Sara Louise, an Esau-hunter figure fishing the waters of the Chesapeake, is ultimately liberated, not by her Isaac-like father but, rather, by her un-Rebecca-like mother, Susan. No woman of deceit, this mother shares with her daughter her own youthful journey toward and realization of self, and, in so doing, opens her daughter's eyes to her own choices and potential actions.
"I chose the island," she said. "I chose to leave my own people and build a life for myself somewhere else. I certainly wouldn't deny you that same choice. But," and her eyes held me if her arms did not, "oh, Louise, we will miss you, your father and I."
I wanted so to believe her. "Will you really?" I asked. "As much as you miss Caroline?"
"More," she said, reaching up and ever so lightly smoothing my hair with her fingertips.
I did not press her to explain. I was too grateful for that one word that allowed me at last to leave the island and begin to build myself as a soul, separate from the long, long shadow of my twin. (pp. 227-228)
And so Sara Louise's journey toward enlightenment, toward an understanding of others and an understanding of self, truly begins. Before the novel ends, she has gone through college, graduating as a nurse-midwife. In that capacity, she moves to a poverty-stricken Appalachian mountain town, chosen because its name is Truitt, the same as her father's. Never far from her past, she has moved from one island existence (Rass) to another (Truitt). Sara Louise herself observes that "A mountain-locked valley is more like an island than anything else I know" (p. 232). It is here in Truitt that she meets and marries her husband and bears her son whom she names Truitt. Thus, as Paterson moves toward the resolution of the Jacob-and-Esau conflict, she introduces the image of the Holy Trinity as a guiding factor in Sara Louise's life at this point.
As readers, we are certainly aware of her father as Truitt and her son as Truitt; but, if they are to be considered the first two parts of the Trinity, then the town of Truitt must be considered the last, that of the Holy Spirit. An examination of the concept of the Holy Spirit and the novel's final scenes explains all. The Holy Spirit is that part of the Trinity that is active and enabling: it enables us to see; it causes change and it enlightens; it moves a person from where she is to where she needs to be. The Holy Spirit is responsible for knowledge and wisdom. And it is in the town of Truitt that Sara Louise is enlightened, able to see and finally understand self. It is here that she recognizes, becomes, and accepts self, something that could only happen asa result of understanding her own haunting birth.
Paterson develops this understanding by Sara Louise in the novel's final chapter, in which she is called to help in the delivery of twins born to a young and impoverished woman named Essie. As the delivery begins, we are reminded of the story of the birth of Caroline and Sara Louise. The circumstances are parallel:
And so in the case of her own birth, the healthier first-born is placed in a basket and given to the grandmother for safekeeping, seemingly forgotten. The weaker of the two, the "Caroline twin," receives all of Sara Louise's attention. Warming the baby by the kitchen oven door, Sara Louise is approached by the babies' father who asks that the weak one be baptized in the event of her death. Sara Louise consents, even though, "I wanted to be left in peace to guard my baby" (p. 242). (Note the use of the possessive pronoun.) She baptizes the child Essie Susan, giving her an identity ". . . in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen" (p. 243). She then proceeds to feed this Essie Susan, this Caroline, with her own breast milk. "I took my baby out of the oven and held her mouth to catch the milk, which began to flow of its own accord" (p. 244).
Embodied in this weaker twin, then, are Caroline, the babies' mother (Susan), and Sara Louise (Essie-Esau) herself. Through the act of breathing life into the child ("breath" being "spirit") and then feeding her, Sara Louise does what she has always done for Caroline: she takes part in her nurturing. Even more, however, she is also forgiving her mother. She does this by feeding the child as her mother fed Caroline, thus finally exhibiting an understanding of and acceptance of her mother's actions during that other delivery so many years before. Of course, most important of all, Sara Louise nourishes self, for the Trinity is complete. She has acquired knowledge and understanding of her own birth and, therefore, reborn, nurtures her new self, that self which not only hears but now can welcome the line of the hymn that Caroline had sung so many years before: "I wonder as I wander out under the sky . . ." (p. 244).
Jacob Have I Loved , like so many of Katherine Paterson's works, confirms the importance of the individual as set against the backdrop of all humanity. To her youthful audience, the author declares her belief in the one and in the whole and, in so doing, reminds them of their role in the larger scheme of things. This novel is indeed a classic, and the beauty of it is that it's so readable for and appropriate to the older junior-high student. At a time when vision of self is all-important, ninth graders are relieved to discover that most of us take years to find self and to accept the self that we find, that such acceptance is not an easy passage, and that, very often, the self we find is not the one we expected.
Patricia A. Liddie chairs the English Department at Council Rock Junior High School-Newton in Newton, Pennsylvania.