I met Heather Munn nearly six years ago when my family moved to the intentional community where she was already living with her husband. Since then, not only have I enjoyed sharing with her a deep love of reading fiction (both YA and adult) but I’ve also enjoyed reading her own writing. Heather and her mother Lydia have co-authored two historical fiction YA books so far: How Huge the Night and its sequel Defy the Night. Both are beautiful and poignant novels of a small village in France that hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II.
“I was the elder by a few minutes,” Sara Louise Bradshaw says of herself and her twin sister. “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.”
Caroline was born not breathing—and even when she began to breathe they weren’t sure she was going to live. As Louise, years later, is told the story of their birth, she hears only the silences about herself. Caroline was miraculously revived; Caroline was taken to the hospital and visited eight times a day by their mother so that she could maintain breastfeeding. “Where was I?” asks Louise, and sees in her mother’s clouded face what her mother doesn’t want to admit: she doesn’t quite remember. In the years since then, Caroline’s extraordinary musical gifts have kept the spotlight on her permanently, leaving the unremarkable Louise in shadow.
Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson is a deceptively simple, amazingly deep book. The prose has a spare, clean beauty, fitting for the book’s setting on the Chesapeake Bay. The Bradshaws’ island life, and the traditional crabbing and oyster gathering methods Louise learns from her father, are described in loving, textured, unsentimental detail. It’s a novel deeply rooted in its place. It’s also classic YA, offering us the first-person voice of a teenager with a grievance against the world and drawing us into sympathy with her. And it is, at heart, a Bildungsroman—one of the best I have ever read.
It’s an awkward, clumsy word, Bildungsroman, but I’ve loved it ever since discovering it was the definition of the young-adult novels I value the most. It’s German for “novel of education,” but the education in question usually doesn’t happen in school. These are books about young people seeking to understand the world, to learn what life is all about—a psychological and moral education. I see it as learning to see—and to face—reality.
Louise’s psychological and moral troubles center around Caroline, of course, and the reader feels them acutely with her as she battles both hatred for her sister and guilt. Caroline is just about as arrogant and thoughtless as her sister thinks she is, but as we watch Louise in action, we see that she herself is bitter and mean-spirited, habitually resenting other people’s joy—and she knows it. But she can’t seem to stop. One of the worst moments comes right after her childhood friend Call returns from the Navy grown up and strikingly transformed (and having little idea that Louise has quietly begun to wonder if she might love him,) and announces his engagement to Caroline. In response to Louise’s stunned disbelief, Call gives a short laugh and says he can see why she is surprised Caroline wanted him: “You never did think I was much to brag about, now did you?”
It is devastating, because it is, in fact, true. From the first chapter on, Louise has scorned Call in her narration repeatedly. The moment is so agonizing that she wishes to curse God and die, and we feel it with her—at least I know I did. Facing the reality of your own wrongdoing, unlike a battle wound, is the kind of pain a reader can share with a character. Especially when you realize you’re fully capable of doing the same things.
Maybe this is why I had to blink a few times when Ruth Graham, in her article about why we should be embarrassed to read YA, offered the quote, “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.”
Maybe it’s also because I’ve written YA myself, and I can say pretty definitely that I wasn’t aiming for pleasure. Not beyond the pleasures of words and story without which no-one would read a novel; certainly not in the way that Ruth Graham is talking about. And I won’t say I’ve never been tempted, because we all know what sells. What sells (at least quickly and easily) is not only wish-fulfillment—the hero “getting the girl,” etc—but also an absolute avoidance of inflicting the kind of moral pain that Jacob Have I Loved inflicts. Especially in YA, your reader is almost inevitably identifying with your main character, so whatever you do, don’t make her face any unpleasant realities about herself! She has to be right. She has to be vindicated.
And in many YA novels she is. Certainly Ruth Graham is right about that—there’s an awful lot of give- ‘em-what-they-want in the genre, especially lately, and I’ll admit to some sympathy with her wish to see us all reading something that makes us think. (Yes, I’d do well to pick up one or two of the unread classics on my bookshelf, now that it’s winter and I have more energy. Because it does take energy.) But I’d thank her not to talk as if YA were wall-to-wall pandering, as if adult genres weren’t rife with it too. As if there weren’t plenty of novels on the “Literary” shelf that mostly offer, in a sophisticated, socially impressive wrapper, the pleasures of scorn.
There are many reasons I am not embarrassed to read YA. One is that I know how arbitrary these classifications are: a publisher can, and often will, take a book written for adults and stamp it as YA based on the age of the protagonist. Another is that both children’s literature and YA can offer a freshness and (usually in the case of YA) an intensity of vision that can help to clear the cobwebs from adult eyes. Another is that I think we should take teenagers more seriously, despite their much-mentioned tendencies to self-absorption and passionate death-grips on hasty conclusions. I get a little tired of seeing the phrase “teenage angst” used as a dismissive cliché. Angst literally means fear. Growing up—stepping out from under a lifetime of protection, facing love and death and necessity on your own for the first time—can be terrifying.
But maybe my biggest reason is my love of the Bildungsroman. Seeing truly, facing reality, is for me the goal of all writing. The Bildungsroman distills this and gives it to us in a strong, pure form, a form meant for young people desperate to understand life—and one that I believe is worth any adult’s time. Reading this sort of thing, at thirty-three, reminds me of the big questions: How should we live? What is right, what is wrong? Is there a God? What is life, what is the world, what is truly worth spending our ninety-odd years of breath on? It also reminds me—when it is done the way Katherine Paterson does it—of how true a false vision of reality can seem, when it’s colored by pain, shame, or fear, or a desperate wish to get even with someone. It reminds me to question the self-serving or self-condemning stories I tell myself, because even at thirty-three I might be dead wrong.
Louise Bradshaw is not, of course, vindicated or avenged upon her sister at the end. But neither does she enter adulthood believing the bleak story she has told herself about her parents choosing Caroline over her. She finds that the truth is, in fact, radically different: her showily gifted sister, who has always been destined to leave, does not belong in the family the way she does. Though their quiet, reserved parents love them both very much, it is Louise, who is more like them and has entered more deeply into their real life, whom they will miss the most.
The grown-up Louise, now a nurse-midwife serving an isolated Appalachian valley, delivers twin babies in the last scene; one of them is not breathing. As she works over the child till she is out of danger, as she realizes with shock that she has forgotten about the stronger twin and urges the mother to hold him, we see her acceptance of the realities her parents faced long ago. Though she will try, however imperfectly, to do better than they did, she is long past blaming them for their instinct to focus wholly on saving an infant’s life. With a truer vision of reality comes the birth of humility; even, as she walks home from the birth in the depths of a cold, starry night, of awe.