I’m not usually much of a nonfiction reader, but I’m discovering that nonfiction books by your favorite fiction writers are an entirely different ballgame. Because they write the back stories of the books you loved.
I read Katherine Patterson’s memoir last spring, and now I’m reading a collection of her speeches and articles called A Sense of Wonder: on reading and writing for children.
In one of those two books–I don’t remember which, she wrote about her book Jacob Have I Loved.
For those of you who haven’t read it, Jacob Have I Loved is about twin sisters growing up on a little island in the Chesapeake Bay. Louise, the slightly older twin, is strong but not that pretty, and just rather forgettable. Her sister Caroline is beautiful and talented, and pretty much gets everything Louise wants in life. The title comes from the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau. Louise feels like everyone, including God, loved her sister more than her, and like her sister got everything.
As a child/young teen I definitely resonated with this book, and I hated Caroline right along with Louise, the narrator. But I hadn’t read it in years when I started reading Katherine’s nonfiction. And Katherine let me in on a secret I’d never picked up on: Louise is an unreliable narrator. She thinks her sister is so awful, but her sister never does anything that terrible. Louise is just projecting her own insecurities about herself and growing up onto her sister.
While rooting through a drawer of books recently (small bedroom problems) I found my own paperback copy of Jacob Have I Loved, and decided to re-read. And oh my bunnyslippers, Katherine was right. This Caroline character I loathed didn’t really do anything that mean, ever, beyond just existing and happening to have beauty and talent. And pushing her sister’s buttons a bit.
For instance, near the beginning of the book, Louise came in from crabbing, nasty and smelly. Caroline said, “your fingernails are dirty.” Louise interprets this to mean, “I’m so pristine and perfect and you’re gross and inferior.” So Louise got angry. But all Caroline had done was to point out the true, if inane, fact that Louise had dirty fingernails. All the negative “meaning” behind her words was just Louise’s own insecurities.
I was just fascinated by this.
I’m still of two minds about it, though. As brilliant as it is, it makes me wonder if she expects children to actually pick up on it. I certainly didn’t.
What I did pick up on, though, was that it was a real story that just happened to be for children. I think that’s really important. I hated being condescended to when I was a child. So maybe the trick of not condescending to them is to purposefully place content in it that they won’t understand.