Book Review: Jacob Have I Loved

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Sara Louise Bradshaw is an awkward, pretentious young woman consumed with envy against her twin sister, whom she feels has robbed her of love and attention since their birth, when Louise was forgotten in the rush to save Caroline’s life.  In Louise’s words,

I was the elder by a few minutes. I always treasured the thought of those minutes. They represented the only time in my life when I was the center of everyone’s attention. From the moment Caroline was born, she snatched it all for herself. (Harper Trophy, 1990, p. 18)

Her feelings are understandable, since her emotionally distant parents do favor the beautiful Caroline, making significant sacrifices to develop her musical gift while Louise (or “Wheeze,” as dubbed by her sister) is neglected.  The book traces Louise’s journey out of her oppressive adolescence into a new life of her own choosing, as she leaves home and marries far from her family.

This story is one of the first in a 1980′s genre of fiction that focused on the out-of-place feelings young people struggle with.  As in many stories of this type, the author succeeds very well at portraying Louise’s crushing resentment, but fails to provide a satisfying resolution.  Throughout her struggles she is obsessively self-absorbed and bitterly envious, providing ample opportunity for readers’ empathy but not for emulation.  More troubling than her hatred of Caroline is her insistence that God is to blame for her pain.  This sentiment is underscored by her mentally ill grandmother, who venomously whispers an out-of-context scripture quotation to her: “As it is written, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.’” (Romans 9:13)

Although the author subtly lets the reader know that many of Louise’s problems are of her own making, the idea that God has forsaken her is never really contradicted.  Rather, it is through taking responsibility for her decisions, leaving home and building a new life on her own terms that Louise achieves resolution.  The story concludes when, in her new vocation as a midwife, she  momentarily forgets to care for a healthy twin while saving the life of the younger.  She instructs the young mother to give proper attention to the healthy child, and walks home peacefully, hearing her sister’s voice singing in her mind.  This scene may be interpreted to mean that she has come to terms with the injustice of her childhood, even though she does not actually reconcile with her sister or parents.

This book won a Newbery Medal, and has been enjoyed by many readers because of its masterful writing and the genuine pathos of its protagonist.  But Louise’s faults unfortunately permeate this compelling story.  I’m willing to be challenged, but I believe that while Paterson has done a great job of describing adolescent struggles, her protagonist is never allowed to fully transcend them.  This, combined with the truly poisonous nature of Sara Louise’s family, makes this a story that may do more harm than good.

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Publication Information: Paterson, Katherine. Jacob Have I Loved. Harper Trophy. 1980. ISBN: 0064403688.
Categories: 2 Stars, Age 12-16, Books That Build Character, NEH Summertime Favorites, Newbery Medal
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Posted on September 2, 2009


2 responses to Book Review: Jacob Have I Loved

  • Shannon Royce says:

    Shanna,

    I appreciated your comments about Jacob Have I loved and your 2 star rating. Interestingly, this was required reading in my son’s 8th grade class last year and provoked significant conversation for us.

  • Cortney says:

    I still remember reading this as a kid and being really weirded out by it. In hindsight, I still probably would have read it, but it would have been nice if my parents had had the opportunity to discuss it with me at the time.

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