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Literature / Jacob Have I Loved

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"But where was I?" I once asked. "When everyone was working over Caroline, where was I?"

Jacob Have I Loved is a 1981 Newbery Medal-winning novel by Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia.

The men of the fictional island of Rass in the Chesapeake Bay have always "followed the water" by becoming crabbers/fishers, starting businesses that their descendants can continue for generations. The novel follows Louise, a daughter of the old Bradshaw family and the older of twins. Her twin sister, Caroline, is everything Louise isn't — beautiful, talented, feminine, and is such considered the favorite. Over the course of the novel, Louise tries her best to break out of her sister's shadow, out of what the people of Rass expect from her, and ultimately, what she expects out of herself.


  • Acceptable Feminine Goals: Louise is keenly aware of how unusual it is on Rass Island for a woman to do the work of a waterman.
  • Adaptation Deviation: Quite a few in the 1989 TV movie. Many scenes are compressed or removed entirely to keep the movie to under an hour in length.
  • And Then What?:
    • In a Pet the Dog moment, the Captain asks Louise what she plans to do with her life now that Call is married to Caroline. She decides to go into medicine since boarding school is now out of the question.
    • A similar conversation takes place between Sara Louise and her parents after WWII ends. She hopes to continue oystering with her father, but he dismisses the idea as she is now a "grown woman."
  • As the Good Book Says...: The twins' grandmother quotes the Bible frequently and is never seen reading anything else.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Louise and Caroline have a few such moments.
    • Louise is proud of Caroline's talent deep down and is even angry when she gets a less showy solo than an inferior singer in the school concert.
    • Caroline comforts Louise when she is upset about the Captain's plan to Mercy Kill Auntie Braxton's cats.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Louise finally finds her place in the world as a midwife and wife of a man she loves, and she saves one twin from dying and another from being neglected. But her father dies, she and Caroline never speak to each other again though they come to the funeral, and she never fulfills her dream of being a doctor.
  • Body Motifs: Sara Louise thinks that the hands, not the eyes, are the windows to the soul.
  • Born Unlucky: Louise's grandmother taunts her by quoting Romans 9:13—"Just as it is written: Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated"—which is spoken not by Isaac or Rebecca, but by God. This leads Louise to believe that she was condemned from birth to live in Caroline's shadow.
  • Cain and Abel: Discussed: Louise dreams of killing Caroline and is guilty enough when she wakes up to compare herself to Cain.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Louise did this once to her parents, in a fit of envy when they were sending Caroline to special music lessons and only afterward asked if she wanted to attend boarding school. She's more successful as an adult, making her Parental Abandonment issues much clearer. She also points out a Bible quote to her grandmother about "quarrelsome women".
  • Catchphrase:
    • "Oh, my blessed!" is a typical island expression of worry, disappointment, or surprise.
    • Louise and Caroline's grandmother has two: "I love the Lord" and "I hate the water."
  • Close-Knit Community: Everyone on Rass knows one another.
  • Cool Teacher: Mr. Rice, who "not only knew how to play a piano but had the talent and strength of will to organize a chorus." Contrasted with Stern Teacher Miss Hazel.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Trudy Braxton has sixteen cats and doesn't have the capability to care for them all, hence the total mess her house is in.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Louise's father dies while she is pregnant with her first son. Both are named Truitt.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Not as blatant as Bridge to Terabithia, but Louise and Caroline's father Truitt doesn't make it to the end.
  • Delicate and Sickly: Caroline, as an infant. She continues being delicate throughout the story, although she appears to have gotten over being sickly, but the islanders maintain that memory of her.
  • Delusions of Eloquence: Louise embarrasses herself by delivering a poorly thought-out speech about why the school should cancel Christmas in light of the Pearl Harbor attack.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Both Louise and her parents after Caroline's singing lessons are covered so she can go to the mainland. Her parents also missed the grandmother quoting the Bible on "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated". While Louise is stewing in her room over the fact that God apparently hates her, they come in and offer to send Louise to boarding school as well, not realizing that her abandonment issues have been triggered. She in turn shouts at them because she thinks they want to send her away, when they're belatedly trying to offer her the same educational opportunities.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: "Wheeze" for Louise. To Kick the Dog further, Caroline gave her that nickname.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep":
    • Mr. Bradshaw is the only person to call the Captain "Hiram." Louise, Call, and Caroline refer to him simply as "the Captain"; Susan calls him "Captain Wallace"; and the twins' grandmother usually refers to him as "that heathen."
    • The Captain is the only person to call Auntie Braxton "Trudy"; everyone else, even the twins' grandmother, knows her only as Auntie Braxton.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: The beautiful, popular Caroline is described as blonde; her plainer twin sister Louise is a brunette.
  • Evil Old Folks: Evil might be a stretch but the twins' grandmother is a short-tempered and resentful woman who uses the Bible to read passages out that taunt and cut down everyone, Louise in particular.
  • Freak Out: Louise mostly keeps her resentment toward Caroline to herself, until Caroline uses some of Louise's hand cream without asking. This is enough for Louise to scream at her and throw all of her manicure tools across the room.
  • The Gift: Caroline's talent for music. She does not rest on her innate skill, though: She practices regularly and takes her formal training very seriously.
  • Gold Digger: Discussed when the Captain says that he won't marry Trudy Braxton because people will think he did it for the money her father left her.
  • Gossipy Hens: Louise mentions that Mrs. Kellam, the town's postmistress, is a "notorious gossip."
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: With book smart, street smart Louise as the "smart" one, and pretty, talented Caroline as the "pretty" one.
  • He is All Grown Up: Louise notes how puberty and the navy did well by Call.
  • Holier Than Thou: The Bible-thumping grandmother who is almost never seen without her Bible, the only book that she reads and constantly quotes the most cutting passages from.
  • Like a Son to Me / Parental Substitute: How the Captain, who has no children, and Call, whose father is dead, feel about each other.
  • Like Parent, Like Spouse: To a mild extent. Near the end, the narrator starts to fall in love with a coal miner, who is several years older than her, when she realizes that he's the kind of man who would "sing to the oysters," a quirk of her fisherman father.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Rendered homeless by the storm, the Captain marries Trudy Braxton, who has a perfectly good house and money to spare but nobody to look after her in her old age. Trudy's death ends the marriage quickly, but they both seemed to genuinely care for each other while it lasted.
  • May–December Romance: Discussed: Louise develops a terrible crush on the Captain despite their 50-year-plus age gap. Her grandmother taunts her for it but it turns out she went through the same thing when she was younger and forever resents the Captain for refusing her.
  • Mercy Kill: The Captain's first instinct when he, Louise, and Call are debating what to do with Auntie Braxton's many underfed cats. He and Call are unable to drown the poor things as planned after hearing them mewl "like little babies."
  • Ms. Imagination: Bored with local gossip and inspired by the recent onset of WWII, Louise temporarily convinces herself that the recently arrived Captain is actually a German spy.
  • Naming Conventions:
    • Any waterman on Rass who owns his boat is called "Captain [surname]" after he passes the age of 50.
    • Any grown woman on Rass is called "Miss [given name]" regardless of her marital status or age.
    • Children on Rass traditionally address their mothers as "Momma."
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Rass Island is fictional. Its climate, economy, and culture are very similar to that of real islands in the Chesapeake, most notably Tangier Island, VA, also a tight-knit crabbing community in danger of losing itself to the water.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: People never did let go of the time The Captain chopped down a mast during a storm.
  • Opposites Attract: Truitt and Susan Bradshaw are Happily Married despite their radically different upbringings and interests.
  • Parental Abandonment: Louise constantly feels this way by being The Unfavorite, and she notes at the end that it's why she doesn't leave the island, because she was worried about being forgotten.
  • Parental Favoritism: Caroline received all the attention as a baby because she was always fragile and ill. She grew up beautiful, popular, musically gifted, sweet, and charming, while Sara Louise became a hard-working tomboy who "never gave her parents a moment's worry." Sara Louise's mission in the novel is to find a life outside her sister's shadow.
  • Parent-Child Team: Louise accompanies Truitt for one winter's oystering season on the Portia Sue and discovers his Hidden Depths, such as his own talent for singing.
  • Pet the Dog: After Caroline marries Call, the Captain decides to pay attention to a despondent Louise and talk to her about what she wants to do with her life. This gives her the courage to tell her parents she wants to leave the island and go to college, and to finally ask if they would miss her.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Louise's parents have never told her that they would miss her if she ever left the island, and the one time they offer to send her to boarding school is right after they decide to send Caroline over for private lessons, making Louise feel like an afterthought.
  • Relationship Reveal: There are a few small hints in the third act of the story that Call and Caroline's relationship is or will become more than just platonic. Their decision to marry comes as quite a shock to Louise, and likely more than a few readers.
  • The Resenter:
    • Louise, of Caroline.
    I was proud of my sister. But that year, something began to rankle beneath the pride.
  • Romantic False Lead: Averted with Call and Louise. They have a relationship on par with siblings and when Call says that Caroline accepted his marriage proposal, Louise disapproves only because of her concern that marriage would end Caroline’s dream of singing. When it’s assured that it wouldn’t be the case, she gives her blessing.
  • Secretly Wealthy: Only the Captain knows that Auntie Braxton has a stash of money that her father had kept from her and her mother before his death.
  • Small Town Boredom: Both Louise and Caroline feel stifled on Rass Island and are determined to leave. Averted with their mother, much to Louise's surprise, as she believes the well-educated Susan threw her potential away by coming to Rass.
  • Something We Forgot: How Louise's life started. She was left in a breadbasket with her grandmother while the midwife rushed to save Caroline at birth. She's been feeling like this up until she goes to college and become a midwife.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: A variant; Louise in college studies medicine, but is told no medical school will accept her as an MD, so she switches to midwifery.
    • Averted with Caroline. Louise fears that her marriage to Call will end her dreams of singing, but Call assures her that he "wouldn't ever hold her back."
    • Zig-zagged with Susan. Although she did give up on an earlier ambition to become an island housewife, she makes it clear that she chose this life willingly and has no regrets.
  • A Storm Is Coming: The men of the island can tell when a hurricane is about to blow in just by the smell of the air and the "ominous rust-colored sunset." Chapter 10 begins this way, leading to a severe storm that spares Truitt's boat but destroys his crab house, floods the Bradshaws' downstairs, and completely decimates the Captain's house.
  • Sunken City: Call fears that Rass will be this one day, as severe storms are known to take pieces of land off the island.
  • Title Drop: The title comes from the Biblical phrase "Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated."
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Louise and Caroline fit this trope perfectly. Louise is plainer and enjoys crabbing and fishing and doing hard work while Caroline prefers staying inside the home and her music lessons.
  • The Unfavorite: Louise feeling she is this makes up much of the novel. Her sister Caroline is adored more by her family and the community, and is given special treatment (like expensive trips to the mainland just so she can get singing lessons) because of her talent.
  • We Are Not Going Through That Again: As a midwife, Louise delivers twins, and has to save one by putting her in the oven, baptizing her in the process. The other twin, like Louise, was left in a breadbasket. Louise quickly tells the parents to hold him as much as possible, and baptize him as well.
  • When He Smiles: Louise's reaction to meeting a Polish coal miner near the end of the book.
    But then, oh, my blessed, he smiled. I guess I knew right then I was going to marry him: God, Pope, three motherless children, unspellable surname and all. For when he smiled, he looked like the kind of man that would sing to the oysters.