When I sat down to reread Jacob Have I Loved, I expected a warm and fuzzy nostalgic experience. I thought I remembered the book…there was an island, and two sisters who didn’t really get along, and there were a lot of storms. Well, it turns out what I didn’t remember was that this book is crazy. The two sisters do not work through their problems, their grandmother is straight-up evil and the narrator falls in love with a 70 year old man. Which is all to say that I love this book because it’s insane. Let’s get to it!
Louise and Caroline may be twins, but they aren’t very close (to put it mildly). Louise has resented her sister since birth because Caroline’s frailty and beauty mean she always gets more attention. So Louise, being the stronger twin, grows up harvesting crabs with her father in their small island town, while Caroline focuses on music. Most of the family’s meager funds are directed towards Caroline’s expensive lessons on the mainland.
Louise is also lonely because she doesn’t really have any friends, save her fellow crabber Call, a slightly pudgy nerd who doesn’t get her jokes (even though she’s totally using her A-game material, like, “Did you hear the one about the lawyer, the dentist and the psychiatrist who died and went to heaven?”). Then there’s her grandmother, who spends most of her time condemning various islanders to eternal damnation and insulting Louise. So that’s what Louise is working with, and why she hates her life so much.
When a mysterious older man shows up on the island, Louise makes it her personal mission to prove that he’s a spy (crabber, private investigator, stand-up comedian…what can’t she do?), but it turns out he’s just a former resident who decided to come back to Rass Island.
Louise and Call start hanging out with the Captain, even though he makes them help restore his home (apparently, child labor laws weren’t a thing back then). Louise kind of hates this, until she starts to develop some…feelings….for the captain. It’s a very bold choice for Katherine Paterson to have our 14 year old narrator fall in love with a man in his 70s. It also really says a lot about her lack of options on the island if she’s like, “I don’t know, the captian’s got some pretty sexy hands.”
The Captain ends up getting married, so things with he and Louise are not to be. Life on the island changes in other ways, too…World War 2 is going on, various storms eat away at the island, and Call joins the service. What really upsets Louise, however, is when the Captain gives Caroline money to go to music school in Boston. While Caroline gets to leave (and ends up going on to Juilliard), Louise is stuck on the island, with only her parents and her possibly psychotic grandmother. She devotes herself to crabbing (I suppose there are worse things to take to when in crisis) and starts to hope that, even though she always thought Call was kind of a dweeb, maybe he’ll come back from the war and ask her to marry him.
Call comes home a buffer, taller, hotter dude, and Louise is all over it. I mean, sure, he’s no 70 year old captain, but he’ll do. But do you guys know what happens? He gets married to Caroline.
That’s right. The sister who got all the attention and the music lessons and the not-smelling-like-crab-all-the-time also gets the, like, one eligible guy on the island. Louise refuses to even go to the wedding, pleading the old “Sorry, I have to stay home and watch my ailing, evil grandmother who thinks I’m Satanic” excuse.
When Louise’s parents and the Captain gently suggest that she might, just maybe, want to get off the quickly eroding island in order to make a real life for herself around people who don’t refer to her as “Wheeze,” she realizes she’s been the only person holding herself back. On the mainland, she goes to college, then pulls a total Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and moves to a tiny town to be their doctor. There in the mountains, she delivers babies, cures sick people, and (surprise!) falls in love.
Louise’s escape from island life can be inspirational for all of us. If we feel like we’re stuck in a hopeless situation (say, living on a rapidly disintegrating island where we spend all of our time harvesting crabs), then maybe all we need to do is leave. A lot of times, we put up mental blocks or give excuses as to why we can’t get out of the situations we put ourselves in, but usually we’re the only ones holding ourselves back. All we need to do is follow our dreams, move to a remote mountain town and marry a kindly widower. Or maybe that’s an example specific to Louise, but whatever, you get my point.
-This isn’t so much a highlight as a Horrifying Scene, but at one point, Louise, Call and the Captain almost drown several bags full of cats. Yes, you read that right. Bags. Full. Of. Cats. Anyway, spoiler alert, they don’t drown the cats (although most of them do die in the next massive storm. K. Pats, what is your issue with cats?!), but yikes. I can’t believe I didn’t remember this scene from when I was a kid!
-One of the many things I love about this book is its refusal to have everyone kiss and make up. As I mentioned earlier, Louise doesn’t go to Call and Caroline’s wedding. She doesn’t have some last minute change of heart, show up right before the walk down the aisle and get to be maid of honor anyway. She doesn’t develop some tenderhearted feelings towards Caroline at the end; she just doesn’t talk to her anymore. I like to imagine Caroline in New York when people ask her if she has any siblings: “Oh, I have a sister, but we don’t really talk. She lives in the mountains somewhere, I don’t really know what her deal is.”
-Another great thing about JHIL is that Katherine Paterson is unafraid to take us into some dark places inside Louise’s head. Louise isn’t an altogether likeable character (she rejects many opportunities other people want to give her and is pretty quick to blame her problems on others), but it’s easy to forgive her for her faults when we see how upset she truly is. At one point, she has a dream about killing Caroline. I mean, are there times I’ve been really annoyed by my brothers? Totally. But I can count on no hands how many times I’ve fantasized about murder, because that’s never happened! Obviously, Louise and Caroline’s problems go beyond normal sibling rivalry and into some pretty intense territory.
Have you read Jacob Have I Loved? Have you ever experienced sibling jealousy as intense as Louise’s? Most importantly, have you ever fallen in love with a 70-something captain? Let me know in the comments! And, as always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Please leave a comment, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.
Image via 100 Scope Notes