The real fun in my life is in the details, a cursory glance over the basic details offer very little in the way of excitement. However, to me, it’s an exciting drama, so we’ll try and pick something a little more juicy to reflect how I feel about my life, rather than an outsider’s perspective. I’m allowed to do that.
The book most like my life would, under that definition, probably be one of my favourite Young Adult novels, Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson. It’s a very poignant and painful novel, and I gobbled it up during the darker periods of my teen years. The story is narrated by Sarah Louise Bradshaw, known to other characters by “Wheeze”, a thoughtful, brooding, and temperamental teenager who lives with her parents, grandmother, and twin sister on a tiny island off the Chesapeake Bay, before and during World War II. Her twin sister, Caroline, stole attention from Sarah Louise from the moment they were born, by nearly dying and requiring constant attention, while Sarah Louise was left cold, clean, and alone in her bunting. Caroline grows up to be the toast of their tiny town, with her beauty, charm, and talent for singing.
Sarah Louise feels a simmering resentment, largely directed towards Caroline, but also at her grandmother’s constant biting reminders at Sarah Louise’s status as the “unfavourite”, her father’s benign neglect, her mother’s quiet suffering, and the stifling, unsympathetic, patriarchal atmosphere of her island community. She diverts most of this anger into energy used for crabbing and her own quiet, simple pleasures, like writing song lyrics and passing afternoons with her friend Call and “the Captain”, an older man whom Louise develops a teen infatuation for, in spite of his advanced age. The Captain feels greatly for Louise’s unfulfilled need to be creative and independent, sadly telling her “Oh, Miss Sarah Louise, you were never meant to be a woman on this island. A man, maybe, but never a woman.”
Sarah Louise plods through her teen years with occasional outbursts, either at Caroline or someone else, needing an escape but not sure how to achieve it. Caroline continues to awe the townspeople with her beauty and her voice, and Sarah Louise continues to feel cold and dark in her sister’s long shadow. She continues to crab, spend time with the Captain, and wonder what awaits her tomorrow. Finally, she has a meltdown towards her mother, screaming at her about wasting her life and potential: She was young, she was beautiful, she was educated, she had so many glamorous, wonderful opportunities in life: Why did she throw them all away to become a schoolteacher on that God-forsaken island they call home? Sarah Louise’s mother tells her the truth, and her and the captain give Sarah Louise the final push to leave the island, to pursue medical studies.
Sarah Louise, unfortunately, doesn’t get to see her dream of becoming a doctor turn to reality. She gets her degree at a time when male GIs were returning from Europe and the Pacific in droves, which combined with rampant sexism to essentially shut her out of medical school, with the admissions officer blathering about what “an attractive young woman like yourself” would want to study medicine for anyways.
Not willing to give up on her studies, Sarah Louise ends up in a nursing program hoping to finish medical school some day, and, on a romantic impulse, takes a midwife/nursing job at a small town in the mountains, which is isolated from the outside world by mountains the way her island, Rass, was by sea water. While there, she carves out a new persona for herself, away from Caroline’s shadow, and becomes a strong, independent, highly competent nurse who is loved by the townspeople for her skills and talent. She marries someone who appreciates her story, her uniqueness, and her outlook, and learns to be at peace with who she is and recognize that she’s a person of her own, who has a place in the world on her own merits, not just as Caroline’s sister.
Sarah Louise and I have some superficial similarities: Brash, heartfelt, dramatic girls with a somewhat bratty streak who grew up on islands, were perceived as outsiders by our community, felt overshadowed by a more conventionally accepted and attractive sibling*, wished desperately to avoid the pitfalls our mothers fell into, and eventually realized that we were born under wandering stars and had to leave the island to truly discover who we were and our full potential, but still look back upon the island home with fondness and some sentimentality.
The deeper differences are in the way we struggled and learned. Sarah Louise channelled her passion and pain into crabbing, struggled with not being “feminine” enough, and felt great, aching pain when she was romantically overlooked by the people she thought would understand her most. As a teenager, I learned many harsh, painful, similar lessons, and while I am not yet at Sarah Louise’s stage of reaching happiness and satisfaction in who I am and what I do ** I know that I am growing outside of my own shadows, and have an identity of my own to possess and cherish.
* Oddly enough, while I always felt my sister got more attention from our parents for being good in school, well-mannered, popular, and pretty, she told me once that she feels I got the lion’s share of attention as a child, because I was constantly getting into trouble and was often the topic of discussion during serious conversations between my parents. The grass is always greener on the other side?
** You never really stop, it’s an ongoing process, but she was further along at it than I am at the moment.