In which my inner child weeps and rages for Louise Bradshaw
My inner adult is none too happy, either.
I knew re-reading Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved would make me angry. I said it would, and it did. I remembered that it was full of beautiful prose that told a really unfair story which would make me furious. Given this indisputable fact, it was a really stupid idea for me to read it last night when I was sick and likely to have trouble sleeping, so that I could lie awake for hours thinking about how angry I was with that book. Unfortunately, it was right there when I decided I wanted to read something before bed. I have no self-restraint when it comes to books.
It's worse than that, though. It made me even angrier than I thought it would. When I first read it, I was probably a teenager or even younger. I was old enough to understand intimately the direct day-to-day injustices Louise suffers at the hands of her sister and her grandmother. But I don't think I knew enough at that time to recognize how everyone else on that damn tiny island was complicit in those injustices. I had not yet learned that what Louise suffers her entire life is honest-to-God abuse.
Because that's what it is; and, what's worse, the author doesn't seem to recognize it as such.
Spoiler warning from here on out. Yes, I give spoiler warnings even for books that came out more than 30 years ago and won awards and get assigned as classroom reading. Everyone's read a different subset of the books that have come out since 1980; you might not have read this one yet. You get a spoiler warning now, just in case you haven't read it and you'd like to. Here is the warning: I'm going to react angrily to specific things that happen throughout the novel, right up to and including the last page. There will be spoilers. You have been warned.
For almost the entire book, Paterson shows you what it's like to be Louise: the unregarded twin sister to Caroline, the island's golden child, for the sake of whose talents every sacrifice must be made. She puts you right in Louise's head. At no time is the reader asked to view Louise's situation as run-of-the-mill sibling rivalry which she'll eventually grow of taking so seriously. From the beginning--from, as I said, the moment of her birth--it's made clear that Louise doesn't matter. To anyone. And the reader is encouraged to feel that disregard deeply, and to resent it on Louise's behalf.
While everyone scrambles to make sure Caroline has music lessons and the best education the island can afford, no one ever asks Louise what she wants out of life. The few times she expresses any wish or desire, it's squashed. When she begins to secretly put away a little of her crab-fishing money for her own use, guessing rightly that no one other than herself considers her future worth investing in, she suffers terrible guilt over it--because her family, like all families in their community, is so poor, and besides, any resources the family has left over after their basic needs is earmarked for sainted Caroline. When Louise finally buys something of her own with her precious hoarded funds, Caroline steals it--and has the gall to tell her, "Don't be selfish." Louise has only two real friends on that island, and in the end they, too, abandon her for her sister.
(This childhood doesn't really do Caroline any favors, either; she never quite learns that other people are as real and vital as she herself is. Her natural childhood egotism never gets told "no" and so it flourishes into outright narcissism.)
And then, after chapter upon chapter of this--a little hope here only to be dashed there, a small bit of affection or concern offered here only to be withdrawn there--we come to the climax of the novel: when Louise is told, "You had dreams and ambitions all this time? Well, why didn't you say so? Why have you wasted all this time and energy in resentment when you could have been going after the life you wanted to live? That's the only difference between Caroline and you, see. She went for what she wanted but you just sat here and stewed."
Right? Eighteen years of abusive and degrading social conditioning should just roll off Louise's back like water off a duck.
I use the term "abusive" advisedly here. Between the time I first read the book and now, I've come to know a wider circle of friends and acquaintances, many of whom suffered and survived ongoing abuse in the bosom of their dysfunctional families. Abuse isn't just about the physical and verbal violence done to the victims; it's also about the long-term damage done to their self-esteem, to their sense of themselves as a person. It is not uncommon for victims of childhood abuse to reach adulthood having internalized that they don't matter, that what they want isn't important, that they don't deserve happiness or safety or affection or adequate nutrition or medical care for an injury, that the very act of wanting such things makes them bad people. That they are bad people, that they don't deserve to take up space on the planet.
This is some of the damage that abuse can cause. It is quite possible to cause that damage to child without landing a single physical blow on their person nor directing overt anger at them. Lifelong emotional neglect will do the trick.
And this is where I think the author herself doesn't understand the full impact of having subjected her narrator to lifelong emotional neglect. Because Louise's response is pretty much, "Why, that's true! The only thing really holding me back has been me! Off I go, then!"
And off she does go into the rest of the novel, which proceeds at the pace of a denouement. It's like a several-chapters-long epilogue pasted on, in which after agreeing that she's fully capable of creating the life she wants to live, she absolutely fails to do so. The college advisor who smarmily informs her that no medical school will admit a woman, is she sure she wants to be a doctor, has she considered nursing school? Or, being an attractive woman, simply getting married? This should have been a challenge for her to overcome with her newfound Carpe Diem epiphany! But no, she cheerfully settles for nursing school. Crisis over in less than two pages. Then, after establishing herself as a nurse in a tiny, claustrophobic mountain town that's pretty much a landlocked version of the place she grew up, she meets a man who infuriates her with his arrogant assertion that "God in Heaven's been raising you for our valley from the moment you were born," but then he smiles her father's smile, so she marries him. This encounter, too, takes about two pages.
It's like the author ran out of steam for developing Louise into the confident, capable woman that all the other characters insist Louise is, so instead she steam-rolled Louise toward a future of settling for this, settling for that, settling, settling, settling.
It's worse than that. While the author seems to be saying "And from then on, Louise created a life for herself out of her sister's shadow," what she actually does is line up the rest of Louise's life according to a checklist driving the story to return where it began in a deeply symbolic way. That horrible Bradshaw family story that preserves in lavish detail the heroics required to keep sickly infant Caroline alive, while simultaneously erasing healthy infant Louise from memory? It plays out all over again on the final pages of the book, and it feels like the reader's supposed to be happy about it.
I was sort of looking forward to this scene as mitigating the unrelenting awfulness at last. But that's only because I totally misremembered how it goes.
Here's what I thought happened: Louise suddenly remembers the healthy baby whom she set aside hours ago in order to perform life-saving heroics over the sickly one. She thinks, "Oh no! I'm creating another me-and-Caroline!" So she gives the healthy baby a memorable story of his own: she picks him up and cuddles him and nurses him with her own mother's milk.
What actually happens is, Louise spares a bare few sentences for the healthy, forgotten baby about how he should be held and nursed rather than left lying in a basket. Then, her duty done, she returns all of her attention to its proper recipient: the perfect tiny infant she's just saved from death and to whom she offers her milk-taut breast.
Well, shit. So much for that.
I don't know what Paterson intended in this final scene. Maybe she really intended Louise's "You should hold him, you should let his mother hold him" to indicate that the healthy baby wouldn't grow up neglected like Louise. But I can tell you how it hit me. My emotional takeaway is basically that Louise has finally realized that of course all attention and care was lavished on Caroline, how could it be otherwise? This was the proper order of things, which only now is she in a position to understand and accept.
I'd like to believe that the author intended to tell a story about how a child survived abuse without losing her sense of self-esteem, and how she finally managed to create a place of her own in the world. But that's not how the emotional equations balance out for me. When I solve for X, what I get is "Yeah, life's rough. Too bad. Suck it up."
And here's where I remember that Paterson also wrote Bridge to Terabithia. Damn it.
Paterson's novels have won awards, and rightly so. She is very, very good at what she does. But what she does is very much not for me. She writes lovely, intimate prose about deeply felt childhood hurts that resonate in my soul, that are never adequately healed but instead provide the framework for quietly triumphant coming of age stories, which can be defined as "the process by which one realizes and makes one's peace with the fact that life is unfair and life will always be unfair." In other words: Suck it up, kid.
I just don't need that in my reading life. Especially when I'm sick.