Tuesday, 15 September 2009
The Lesser Sibling and the Short End of the Stick
Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved has been sitting on my desk for quite some time, waiting for me to review it. I remember not liking it when I was a teenager. Even ten years later when I was collecting children’s and young adults’ literature and bought a thrift shop copy, I ended up getting rid of it again after a re-read. I found it unsettling. I've found it just as difficult to review as it was to read.
When the story opens, it’s 1941, and we meet 13-year-old Louise Bradshaw, who lives on a small island off the coast of Maryland, with her waterman father, her former schoolteacher mother, her half-senile and wholly nasty grandmother, and her musically gifted twin sister Caroline. We follow Louise through her coming of age to maturity and revisit her when she’s well settled into her adulthood.
Life on the island of Rass is limited and spartan. Almost all of the occupants get their living from the sea, which means that most people have to work very hard, the mortality rate is high, homes and boats are sometimes lost in severe storms, and no one has a high standard of living or much education. The annual Christmas concert put on by the 20-student high school is a major social highlight, and everyone depends on the radio, Time magazine, and the Baltimore Sun newspaper to keep them informed about the larger world. But change is in the air, even though the changes themselves are themselves are grim ones, and initially mean more deprivation and new battles to be fought — literally, because World War II breaks out and the young men of Rass leave to join the military. In a wrenchingly poignant touch, Rass itself is disappearing, the ocean claiming a little more of it every year.
Louise is an intelligent, capable girl with loving parents, but she is constantly chafing miserably against the limits of her life. Her reaction to her twin sister Caroline is the main conflict of the novel, as the title of it indicates. I’ve deliberately written “reaction to” rather than “relationship with”, because Louise’s problems with Caroline have very little to do with who Caroline actually is, and much more to do with Louise’s need to find her own level and role in life, and to be comfortable with who she is.
Caroline was born frail while Louise was a strong and healthy baby, and so Caroline got a great deal of special attention during the first few years of their lives. When the family narratives are told and retold about those first few hours of the twins’ lives are told, they always seem to be entirely concerned with Caroline. When Louise asks where she was while everyone was trying to save Caroline, her family members look blank. Then as the twins got older and Caroline outgrew all her medical problems, it was discovered that Caroline had a remarkable talent for music, necessitating expensive music lessons on the mainland and much more special attention and adulation from everyone in the twins’ lives.
The back jacket copy on my edition describes Caroline as “selfish”, but I disagree that she is. The most selfish thing Caroline does is casually help herself to Louise’s carefully hoarded hand lotion (and she doesn’t in the least understand Louise’s resulting outrage), and the most irritating thing she does is announce she’s going to start writing her memoirs in preparation for the time when she will be famous, but as sibling misbehaviours go, if those are the worst things Louise has to complain of, she can count herself lucky. Caroline is no more selfish or self-absorbed than any average teenager might be, and certainly no more so than Louise. Caroline is quite naturally very involved in her musical studies, but she repeatedly demonstrates an awareness of and a concern for others and their needs during the course of the novel. The radio broadcast about the bombing of Pearl Harbor affects Caroline as deeply as it does Louise, she is infuriated by their grandmother’s horrible insinuations about a friend, and on several different occasions when a neighbour has a problem she is ready with a creative solution and works to bring it to pass. What Caroline lacks, and this is not to her discredit, is the hypersensitivity towards Louise that Louise has for Caroline. Caroline is a naturally serene and confident person, has no issues with Louise, and consequently can’t understand what Louise’s problem is. (Nor does Louise make a concerted effort to communicate her problem to Caroline, except in noisy bursts of rage that merely leave Caroline bemused.) And what Caroline could have done about it if she had understood? She could hardly have given up her music or been less confident or pretty. However, the fact that Caroline doesn't understand and can't resolve Louise's problem does not mean that Louise's issues are any less real or important.
Paterson seems to like delving into grim realities, and family hierarchies with their painful gaps are definitely a grim reality. It’s not possible for parents to treat their children with perfect equality when their needs are inevitably disparate. One child may need more — or less — resources than the others, and sometimes kids just have to accept getting the short end of the stick, especially in cases where one child is extremely gifted or handicapped and there just isn’t enough money or parental attention to go around.
As I think and write about Louise and Caroline, I am reminded of a real-life pair of sisters who had a similar hierarchical gap and unhealthy dynamic: Florence and Parthenope Nightingale. Parthe Nightingale was exceptionally intelligent and talented in her own right, but she lived her entire life in her younger and genius sister Florence’s wake. Florence was so much Parthe’s superior in everything, in intellect, accomplishments, popularity, drive, looks, health, that Parthe could never begin to keep up. Their parents were aware that they needed to separate the girls for Parthe's sake, but Parthe’s poor health made it impossible for her to attend boarding school and no school could be found to undertake the education of Florence. Parthe was tormented by her inferiority in her youth, and by her teenaged years she had developed a neurotic and parasitical attachment to Florence. In early adulthood, Parthe tried to live through Florence and demanded that Florence live the conventionally successful life expected of an upper-class Victorian girl rather than reform the medical system (to be fair, their parents W.E.N. and Fanny Nightingale were of the same opinion as to what Florence should do with her life). It wasn’t until mid-life, when Parthe got married and wrote a number of books, that Parthe finally started to settle into her own sphere and be contented with it. But even then, her happiness was shadowed by the fact that Parthe’s husband was a man who had wanted Florence and, when he couldn't get her, settled for marrying Parthe so that he could have a place in Florence’s life.
Fortunately Louise doesn’t turn into a Parthe Nightingale and latch onto Caroline. Instead she tries to escape her sister’s long shadow, difficult as that is on their little shrinking island where, both literally and figuratively, there are so few places for Louise to go. Rass offers her few options and she gets little support or approbation for the choices she does make. If Louise had been born a boy, she likely would have become a waterman like her father and been perfectly happy with that life, but for a girl in the 1940s this was not possible. She uses her own skiff to crab and later works with her father on his boat, enjoys the work, and is proud of her skill and stamina and of her contribution to the family’s income. But even though everyone acknowledges the economic necessity of her work on the water during wartime her father tells her he cannot let her work on the boat once the war is over and Caroline complains that Louise stinks when she gets home (okay, that’s maddening and should probably have gone in the list of Caroline’s worst behaviours). Louise has a friend in a neighbour boy named McCall — that is, they spend time together because neither of them have other friends even though they don’t get along at all well. And she falls in love, secretly and hopelessly, with Hiram Wallace, who is an islander in his seventies. For the most part it seems to have been this aspect of the novel that made me so uncomfortable, though as I think about why I realize it’s probably mostly just a personal bias against this kind of age gap in romantic relationships, which I need to set aside for the purposes of writing this review.
Falling in love is generally part of the teenage experience, especially for a girl of Louise’s emotional intensity. In her case there was a dearth of eligible boys of her own age, and that river had to flow somewhere. And, so far as falling in love is a choice, Louise doesn’t choose so badly at that, as Hiram Wallace is wise, kind, generous, and truly lovable. But Louise knows full well she can never be with Hiram in the way she wants, and the knowledge eats at her. Her grandmother, who divines her secret, tortures her by constant remarks on the topic as well as with the purplest of Biblical quotes. Louise also has to “share” Hiram and MCall with Caroline as she does every other area and component of her life, and as always she feels, not without cause, that Caroline gets far more than her share. It doesn’t help that her Methodist upbringing has her convinced she’s hell-bound due to the feelings of hate and anger her frustration with her life engenders in her, nor that she feels bound to Rass and her family because she loves them both, problematic as they are.
In the end Louise does get to create a life that she is contented with, and thankfully it doesn’t involve taking one of Caroline’s rejected suitors à la Parthe Nightingale.
I marvel at the skill Paterson demonstrates in this book. Almost no young readers with access to this novel would have any idea of what it was like to live a life as circumscribed as that of a young girl on a tiny fishing island in 1941. But Paterson’s characterization of Louise and her struggle to find her own place is so real that many who already understand what is like to not fit into one’s own life, will be able to relate to Louise. And though they probably wouldn’t want to live the life that Louise chooses, they can readily grasp that the promises of adulthood, of being able to make choices, of having the world open up to them, of being able to cast aside some of the burdens of childhood as irrelevant and outgrown, will also hold true for them.