It is an intriguing experience to reread books you first read as a child. Sometimes they hold up. Too often they are awful. So when my book club decided to read Jacob Have I Loved – a book I first remember reading sometime as a late elementary- or middle-schooler – I was intrigued. How would this stack up? And were my hazy memories of the book right in how things played out? And just as a reference, this is the cover of the copy that I had growing up. I’m quite sure I got it through a Scholastic book sale:
Looking at that particular cover, it’s easy to imagine that the main characters of this book will be in their late teens, and it will be swirling in romantic intrigue. And having remembered this cover, I was shocked to open the book and begin to read about a girl who had just turned 13. Of course, no cover is perfect. The one I’m using for my header is sort of vague enough, but the library copy that I read – while accurately portraying the ages of the characters in question – features the creepy AF visage of a preternaturally pale and glowing blonde Caroline standing behind her sister Louise (who looks fully human, if fully angry too).
And that’s what I’m going to talk about with this book – the comparison between Louise and Caroline. Caroline was born second, and was born frail, so required more attention. She grew into a talented, pretty blonde child who continued to be delicate and take up all the time and attention that their parents could or should have been sharing with Louise. And Louise knows it. She sits back quietly in their 1940s Chesapeake island life and seethes about how she feels less love and attention than she thinks she deserves. Louise does things in an attempt to break out on her own in Island life, but eventually, those two are taken over by Caroline. Eventually, Louise tries to scheme in a subtle way to get off the island, but it backfires, and instead of suggesting that Louise be sent off the Island for schooling, it is musically gifted and stifled Caroline who is sent away and who gets to thrive away from the Island.
This brings up two takeaways that our book club came up with during our discussion: the first is that Caroline was an awful sister. She did butt in to everything that Louise was doing. She was the one who took over friendships with both Call and the Captain, and who dug through Louise’s private drawer in their room to use the lotion Louise had purchased for herself. It’s not evil stuff, but it’s the kind of privileged-favorite-child behavior that she knows she can get away with because no one will actually retaliate against the weaker younger twin.
But the second big take away was that Louise never got the things she wanted…because she never asked for them. The last chapters of the book are the ones where Louise finally begins to verbalize the things that she wants. When she finally tells her mother (out loud) that she wants to get off the Island, her mother tells her she would have helped her at any time to do that, but Louise never asked. And as soon as Louise asks – she’s on her way to getting the things she always wanted, and not just the things she wished her sister didn’t have.
So I can definitely see why this book won a Newbery award. It is such an important lesson for young people (especially girls) to ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT. If we spend our entire lives looking at what others have, scheming for subtle ways to achieve parts of our dreams…we will not achieve anything. That person will not ask you out, the promotion will go to someone else, and no good things will just be handed to you for your saintliness. But when we are bold – when we verbalize the things that we want and need in our lives, we are more likely to have someone say yes. So in addition to this book bearing a bible verse for a title about an adored younger twin, perhaps it would have been good to close things out with another bible verse which embodies what Louise should have focused on instead of seething at Caroline:
Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find;
knock, and it will be opened to you.
– Matthew 7:7
Details: Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson; first published 1980 by Crowell.