Friday, April 18, 2014
P IS FOR KATHERINE PATERSON
I don't remember when or how I first discovered the books of Katherine Paterson. I know that it was a very long time ago, and I know that she is the author whose work first introduced me to the concept of historical fiction written for children. Think about it. Aside from Bible stories, weren't almost all the books you read as a child set in a time contemporary to when the book was written? I know that the ones I read were. At most, they were set during the time when the author was a child - not hundreds of years earlier. But here was a children's author, skipping around lightly through the centuries, through countries and cultures, seeming for all the world as if she belonged wherever she landed. And it changed everything about writing for me. If I hadn't encountered her work, I would never have dreamed about setting the first book I wrote for children in Venice, in the year 1574. Katherine Paterson opened that door for me, earning my eternal gratitude.
But gratitude wasn't the only emotion she shook loose in me. There was also admiration for her gifts as a writer, appreciation for her humor, and awe for her courage. Her best-known book, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, was the very first American children's book to feature as a main character a child who died in an accident during the course of the story. Public reaction was very strong; many people were horrified at the thought that child readers would be exposed to a tragedy they wouldn't be able to handle. But Paterson was adamant that BRIDGE was a story that needed to be told. She knew from personal experience that sudden tragedies do occur in the lives of children; the idea for the book originated with the accidental death of her young son's playmate, and she knew that similar experiences might happen to any child. The book was widely banned for years. As most of you probably already know, eventually the tide turned, and Paterson ended up winning one of her two Newbery Medals for BRIDGE.
But it's the book that won her the other Newbery which resonates most deeply with me, and that still remains my most beloved children's book of all time. JACOB HAVE I LOVED is the story of Louise, known by the unbeautiful nickname Wheeze, who lives with her family on a little spit of land in the Chesapeake Bay during what seems to be the 1940's. Everyone on the island is involved in one way or another with the fishing industry, and Paterson brings vividly to life the pervasive feeling that on the island, there is no clear demarcation between land and water. The only person who seems to be completely land-bound is Wheeze's twin sister, Caroline. In fact, although Wheeze and Caroline share a room, they seem to occupy two completely different worlds. Wheeze is rough and tomboyish, and feels as much at home on the water as she does on land. Caroline is delicately beautiful, as well as exceptionally gifted. Even the most workworn residents of the island recognize that Caroline's musical talents lift her far out of their ordinary realm and out into the wider world. Wheeze recognizes Caroline's gift too, but is also victim to the complacency and self-centeredness that come along with it. Wheeze has nothing, Caroline has everything, and as much as Wheeze tries to resist, envy eats away at her heart until she hates both Caroline and herself. But there is something even worse in store for her. The girls' mentally ill grandmother, who seems to have the ability to see directly into Wheeze's heart and to revel in her despair, gleefully quotes from the Bible to her: "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." Wheeze looks up the quote to find out who spoke that line, and sees that it was God. Wheeze is the bad twin. God loves Caroline, but hates Wheeze.
Paterson has been married to a minister (now retired) for some sixty years now, and her own faith is deep, but she doesn't shout about it in her books; she wears it lightly. That's probably why it cuts so deep. She embodies the maxim of walking humbly with one's God. JACOB HAVE I LOVED is permanently wrapped around my heart, but there are so many other books of Paterson's that I love too. Consistently, she roots for the outcast, the underdog, the one who feels unloved. She forces her readers to see them and care about them. She is an ambassador of empathy to the world, and the world has made an effort to repay her. She has won just about every prize and award in the field of children's literature,and has richly earned all of them.
This astonishing woman is now 81 years old. She is a beacon of light in my life, and always will be. Thank you, Katherine Paterson.