Jacob Have I Loved

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Jacob Have I Loved

by Katherine Paterson


A novel set on a small island in the Chesapeake Bay during the 1940s; published in 1980.


An adolescent girl struggling to cope with her own individual passage into adulthood and a sense of rivalry with her twin sister finds comfort in becoming an expert crab fisher like her father.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, Katherine Paterson studied religion in college. She relied on her extensive knowledge of biblical tales involving sibling rivalry to create the young adult novel Jacob Have I Loved. Additionally, Paterson attributes her inspiration for the book’s Chesapeake Bay setting to William Warner, author of Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay. Jacob Have I Loved captures the lifestyle of the fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay, also depicting the types of experiences a teenager such as Paterson’s character Louise would have had there during the 1940s.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The fishing industry in Chesapeake Bay

The Chesapeake Bay measures almost exactly two hundred miles from north to south. Located between the harbor at Norfolk, Virginia, and the Chesapeake Delaware Canal, it is the largest inland body of water on the Atlantic coast of the United States. On the bay’s eastern shore sits Maryland, with the majority of the smaller islands located here as well; on the western coast is Virginia. The bay supports the thriving industry of crab fishing, providing more crabs for human consumption than any body of water in the world. There are also vast quantities of oysters in the Maryland portion of the bay, making the state the leading provider of oysters in the country.

In the days before and during World War II, when Jacob Have I Loved takes place, the fishing industry on the smaller islands of the Chesapeake Bay was in an economic downturn. Wholesale fish prices rose because of the situation, and the cost of maintaining and operating the big nets increased. In the smaller island communities, such as the one depicted in the novel, many of the fishing boats operated as family businesses, manned by fathers and sons. The war interfered with these businesses. Like Louise’s friend Call in the novel, fishermen were drafted into the armed forces, which left the older men to pursue their fishing work shorthanded. This, in turn, resulted in lower productivity overall. On the western shores of Virginia the fishermen—called netters—survived because of the great runs of river herring. Just when the days of netting crab were coming to a close, a new way of crab fishing appeared. The modern crab pot virtually turned around the industry in the islands, and the innovation remains highly successful to this day.


Early in the novel, Louise states that there were approximately forty houses on Rass Island. She refers to her teacher, Mr. Rice, as being half the faculty of her high school. With such a sparse population, only a couple of teachers were needed. Louise makes a revealing comment to Call:

You can learn a lot from someone who comes from the outside. Take Mr. Rice. I guess Mr. Rice taught me more than all my other teachers put together. All two of them.

(Paterson, Jacob Have I Loved, p. 85)

In fact, Louise’s own mother had come to the island to teach, whereupon she met and married Louise’s father, a local fisherman. In his book, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay, William W. Warner describes how one of the islands (Tangier) dealt with the issue of providing education for its young people as they began leaving the community for schooling and other necessary elements of life. Its populace went “to great pains to provide as many of these essentials of life as possible right on the island. For this reason Tangier has steadfastly maintained its own high school since 1932, even though it typically had a graduating class of ten or less” (Warner, p. 241).

In the novel, Louise has a secret desire to leave the island and attend a boarding school in the mainland town of Crisfield. This dream never comes to pass, and Louise eventually finishes her schooling at home; however, this option of completing an education on the island was not the typical one taken by most young islanders during that time.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Jacob Have I Loved is narrated by the main character, Louise, and begins with her return to her childhood home of Rass Island in the Chesapeake Bay. She is there to collect her now widowed mother so that she can come and live with Louise in the Appalachians. The story then flashes back to Louise’s recollection of her poignant adolescent years from 1941 to 1947. Having long felt resentment toward her fraternal twin sister Caroline, Louise’s feelings seemed only to escalate as the twins entered their teen years. Her slightly crazy grandmother would compare the sisters to the story of Isaac’s twin sons in the Bible, Jacob and Esau; in the biblical story the younger brother, Jacob, was favored by Isaac through the deliberate scheming of the boys’ mother.

At thirteen, Louise was an awkward tomboy who spent much of her spare time fishing for crabs with Call, a nearsighted, overweight, and fatherless fourteen-year-old boy. Like Louise, Call was awkward and a loner. Meanwhile, Louise’s twin sister, Caroline, was popular, charming, and pretty, with a natural talent for singing. A born performer, Caroline seemed to occupy the spotlight both at school and at home, much to Louise’s chagrin. Their father, an island fisherman, taught Louise how to catch crabs. Yet because she was a girl, it was not deemed proper for her to go aboard his fishing boat as his official assistant. This did not stop Louise from honing her skills at the craft of crabbing, on which she prided herself, despite Caroline’s scowls and remarks at how dirty she looked after a day’s fishing.


A crab pot is a cubelike cage whose top and bottom measures two feet square. Twenty-one inches high, the lower part of the pot has cone-shaped funnels that serve as entranceways for the crabs. In the lower center is a bait box, and half way up the pot is an inverted-V-shaped partition made out of mesh and containing a couple of funnels. Instinctively the crab swims upward in search of freedom after eating the bait, and upon reaching the mesh contraption grows confused and gets caught.

One day an elderly man, who was once an infamous islander, returns to Rass. Louise drags Call with her to investigate who this man is. Catching them spying outside his house, the old man welcomes them inside. They call him the Captain, and Call takes to him immediately. For fear of losing her only friend, Louise agrees to visit the Captain with Call, even though she doesn’t care much for his sense of humor. Eventually her twin Caroline joins them, acquainting herself with the Captain, and also Call, which Louise finds personally intrusive. When a massive storm hits the island, Louise’s father sends her to bring the Captain to their house. When Louise takes the Captain back to his own house the next morning, they discover that the storm has washed it away. The Captain comes to stay with Louise’s family for a time and Louise develops a crush on him, her first crush ever. Caroline, however, plots for the Captain to marry another elderly lady on the island, which he eventually does. Once again, Louise feels irked by Caroline’s interference.

When the Captain’s wife passes away, he decides to use some money from her estate to help send Caroline to a music academy in Baltimore, Maryland, to finish her schooling. Louise feels jealous and hurt that her sister has been chosen over her. Her friend Call had quit school to fish with Louise’s father, but then World War II broke out and he had joined the navy. Without Call or Caroline to keep her company, Louise finishes her schooling at home and takes Call’s place on the boat with her father. She suffers another emotional blow when Call returns from the war to announce his engagement to Caroline. Louise stays on the island a bit longer before finally leaving to attend the University of Maryland, where she is told that as a woman she has little chance of getting into medical school to be a doctor. She decides to transfer to the University of Kentucky to study nursing and midwifery, then ends up practicing in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains, where she meets and marries a young widower with three children. In the final scene, the novel comes full circle when Louise delivers a pair of fraternal twins for one of her patients.

Midwife instead of doctor

There were few options for a young woman living in the Chesapeake Bay region in the early 1940s. Although the characters of Caroline and Louise manage to move away and forge careers for themselves outside the island, they still lived in an era that offered a limited range of career choices to women. In Jacob Have I Loved Louise aspires to be a doctor but is told at the University of Maryland that although she is very bright, the chances of a woman getting into medical school are slim. Disappointed but not defeated, Louise opts to attend the University of Kentucky, where she obtains a nursing degree and specializes in midwifery, or the profession of assisting women in childbirth. Just as Louise’s desire to fish with her father as a child was frowned upon because she was a girl, her wish to become a doctor was also thwarted on the basis of her sex.

The medical profession, like most high-paying fields during the 1940s, was almost completely male-dominated. In fact, the population of practicing midwives had been dramatically downsized as male physicians took the place of female midwives in obstetrical practices. As this transition took place, birth rates in the United States declined and the incidence of infant mortality rose. Physicians blamed the midwives, and midwives blamed the physicians. The midwife controversy remained a subject of ongoing debate, but this did not stop the Lobenstine Midwifery Clinic and School, which had been established in 1931, from continuing to offer a combined degree in nursing and midwifery. In 1938 the Frontier Graduate School of Midwifery was founded in Hyden, Kentucky, a similar school to the one Louise attends in Jacob Have I Loved. Yet by the mid- to late 1940s, the practice of midwifery was not only still controversial but also rare. Midwifery would not advance further in the medical profession until the formation of the American College of Nurse-Midwives in 1955.


In addition to being raised by parents who were Presbyterian missionaries, Katherine Paterson obtained degrees from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education and the Union Theological Seminary. The man she married was a Presbyterian minister. Paterson describes her biblical heritage as a major influence on her writing over the years. Born the middle child of five children, Paterson knew what it was like to be a younger sibling as well as an older one. She was furthermore fascinated by biblical tales that pitted siblings against each other, especially ones in which the younger one would get the upper hand. This dynamic is examined in Jacob I Have Loved in the guise of Louise’s constant frustration with her younger twin. Influenced by her grandmother’s ranting from the Bible, Louise convinces herself that she is like Esau, the hated twin of Jacob. In the tale, the twins’ mother, Rebecca, prefers the younger son Jacob and schemes to have him favored by his father over Esau. As Louise matures, she comes to terms with her resentment for Caroline by exploring her own personal ambitions.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

A thriving industry

To this day, the Chesapeake Bay continues to be the main source of blue crab and oysters in the United States. The crab and oyster fishing industry has, moreover, continued to provide a livelihood for the small island communities over the years. In 1976, a few years before the novel appeared, William W. Warner estimated the annual intake of the industry in the Chesapeake Bay: “Since its beginning in the mid nineteenth century,” says Warner, “the Bay’s blue crab fishery has made the United States the leading crab-consuming nation of the world…. The national catch of all species annually averages anywhere from two hundred fifty to three hundred fifty million round weight or ‘whole crab’ pounds worth approximately $80,000,000” (Warner, p. 9).

Social development

Since World War II, the Chesapeake Bay island population has been steadily declining as more younger people pursue careers and trades outside the small communities. In Jacob Have I Loved Louise and Caroline are examples of this trend. There was also an increase in the concern for proper education and medical care after World War II. Schools were erected on the islands, clinics were opened, and medical emergency transport was made available to the mainland if needed. The islands saw the appearance of new, paved roads, cars imported from the mainland, and a tourist industry. Visitors were shuttled by boat to the islands and a whole new business developed. In touring these historic fishing islands, visitors partake of the fresh catches of crab and oyster while gaining an earful from the older locals, who can still tell tales of the more rustic island days.

Twins and the struggle for identity

Studies of twins had progressed by the early 1980s to focus on personality development in pairs, taking into account genetic makeup and experience or environmental factors (such as a twin’s relationship with a parent or even with the other twin). The chief task of being an adolescent, say psychologists, lies in developing a separate identity. For twins, this is particularly stressful because they must separate not only from the family but also from the twin. It helps if the twins are different from each other in basic ways. In fact, there is a phenomenon in studies of twins that involves some of them demonstrating opposite personality traits. One, for example, is orderly while the other cares little about neatness. Often differences are attached to sex roles, as is the case in the novel, with Louise gravitating toward fishing, the activity that occupies her father.

As researchers have pointed out, twins tend to compete for the attention of their parents, especially of their mother. Gravitating toward different parents tends to reduce the problem of competing directly for the same parent’s attention. It has been argued that in their struggle to develop their own identities, a pair of twins may even create artificial differences between themselves. Studies also indicate the existence of a particular type of twin relationship that seems to, in certain respects, describe the situation in the novel. One of the twins in this type of relationship is idealized by the other one, who suffers from low self-esteem. All of this helps explain how bad Louise felt when her own fast friend Call came to know her twin sister, Caroline. This boy, whose friendship had helped define Louise as a separate person in her own right, now had to be shared with Caroline (and later mostly given up to her).

Twin research that came to light in the 1980s furthermore shows that physical separation of a pair of twins can help one or the other form his or her own identity. In one case, a twin sister went away to college. “With Diane gone, Debbie could venture into previously inaccessible domains of selfhood” (Ainslie, p. 98). This is true, too, for Louise in the novel, though Caroline not only goes away to school but becomes engaged to Call before Louise embarks on a career and life all her own.


Jacob Have I Loved met with mostly positive reviews upon its publication in 1980. Qualified praise came from one reviewer in Booklist, who took issue with the story’s summation as the narration begins to broadly describe the events of Louise’s adult years. The critic went on, however, to praise the novel for the impact it achieves:

The first person narrative, strongest in Louise’s early years, loses some of its momentum during her gradual evolution into adulthood, which happens without benefit of confrontation. More a portrait than a full-bodied novel, this nevertheless stirs the blood.

(Elleman, pp. 255-56)

The book garnered Katherine Paterson her second John Newbery Medal for children’s literature, an award well deserved, according to Marcus Crouch in Junior Bookshelf:

Katherine Paterson won a second Newbery Medal with Jacob Have I Loved…. She shirked no issues in a story of a twin balked at every stage in life by the effortless brilliance of her sister…. Rarely have the torments of adolescence been presented with such candor.

(Crouch, pp. 161-62)

For More Information

Ainslie, Ricardo C. The Psychology of Twinship. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Burgess, Robert H. This Was Chesapeake Bay. Cambridge, Md.: Cornell Maritime, 1963.

Crouch, Marcus. Review of “Jacob Have I Loved.” Junior Bookshelf 45, no. 4 (August 1981): 161-62.

Elleman, Barbara. Review of “Jacob Have I Loved.” Booklist 77, no. 3 (October 1, 1980): 255-56.

Litoof, Judy Barnett. American Midwives: 1860 to the Present. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Paterson, Katherine. Jacob Have I Loved. New York: HarperCollins, 1980.

Warner, William W. Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976.

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Jacob Have I Loved

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