Katherine Paterson’s Ode to the Chesapeake Bay

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The area around the Chesapeake Bay was actually the first part of the US to be settled by the English (not Plymouth MA). Both the Bay itself and the people who choose to stay there make fascinating reading.

Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved won a Newbery Award as a children’s/young adult novel, but it is an excellent 3 Hour Read for adults. I think I enjoy this book more now than when I first read it as a young teenager.

I first read this book many years ago, and I thought it was depressing and strange.  It seemed like the main character, “Weezie”, or Louise, doesn’t get anything that she wants.  And also, she’s just plain weird. I imagine her as the type (or should I say at the stage) of the young teenager who is consistently in a bad mood for no discernible reason. She is jealous of her sister, then of her best (guy) friend’s relationship with her sister, then she gets a bizarre crush on a 70 something year old man…and then it gets depressing.   

This is the cover I remember. I like this cover because it emphasizes the similarities between the sisters, but I never did get the dresses. Not something they really would have worn in the 1940’s.

As a native of coastal Virginia, I may have also found it a little scary.  The story is set on an island on the Chesapeake Bay. The erosion of, well, pretty much all land masses, is something I heard about throughout my childhood. The erosion of the islands in the Chesapeake Bay is certainly more dramatic, but they mirror a reality of my entire life.  As I child, I regularly heard discussions about the best way to protect our suburban lot from the canal.  And our annual visits to the Outer Banks of North Carolina always began with a walk to determine which iconic (to us) cottages had survived the winter. Sometimes they were just gone, especially if they were on the beach.  England lost a whole colony out there in the late 16th century; it’s no joke!  To me, erosion was and is very real.

This cover emphasizes the sisters’ separate identities and also gives a sense of the power and resulting isolation of the Chesapeake Bay.

 I have to say, this book works much better from the perspective of an adult.  Now I understand that Louise is weird because young adolescents are weird; that doesn’t make her a loser.  I think maybe Paterson’s writing was just too subtle for me then.

But now, being older, I better understand both Louise, who needs to figure out where she belongs, in context with both her parents and the time she comes of age, during World War 2.   

The real achievement of this book: that it is a story about the generations, all in one place.  The 60 and 70 year olds in this book are full fledged characters with hopes and dreams, and even romantic attachments, just as much as the younger characters. The readers get to understand exactly why Grandma acts so mean and crazy as well as what she has endured in her life. 

It’s hard to imagine the isolation of the islanders during this period, but I also have a fondness for their way of life, in theory anyway.  I also have a fondness for the water, so I appreciate that about this book too.  The Chesapeake Bay is as much a character in this story as any of the people, and having lived here myself and also having recently read Earl Swift’s book on the year he spent on Tangier Island (in the Chesapeake Bay), I have to say it feels authentic. 

Louise gets to dominate the cover of her own story along with her boat, that emphasizes her isolation.

 The title of this book too, is a reach for a teenager.  It comes from the story of Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament, as quoted in Romans.  One of the pivotal moments of the novel is when Louise looks up the phrase, after hearing her grandmother repeatedly quote it, and feeling devastated when she realized that the speaker is God.  She feels cursed.   

When I read this passage, I had to laugh.  Yes, the speaker is God, but the writer of Romans is the Apostle Paul, and he is also the one that didn’t think anyone should get married.  While it is true that God called Jacob to be the father of Israel, but what is also true is that Esau went on to get married, have a lot of kids (and also found a nation), and live his life.  Both brothers had their negative traits: Jacob was a schemer, and Esau was a boor.  But certainly it isn’t a curse. 

As I reread the Biblical account, I was taken by how poetically Paterson’s novel echoes the Biblical account, but don’t rely on Grandma! Take a moment to read it for yourself! I found a humorous version on Youtube (below) that puts the story in context with a very entertaining narration.

This book won a Newbery Award, for excellence in children’s literature, but it is really challenging for children to understand…even for teenager’s is pushing a bit.  If you missed it as a teenager, or even if you didn’t, go back and give it a read, which you can probably do in less than 3 hours. 

Sibling rivalry at its best.






Jacob Have I Loved takes about 3 hours to read…if you want a really long, but great one, read this classic novel.

Reading Times

Short Read: Jacob Have I Loved

Long Reads: Chesapeake, The Secret Token, Marooned

Sustained Read: Chesapeake Requiem

Skip Read: All but Jacob Have I Loved are possible, but Chesapeake Requiem probably works the best. You might be able to skip the beginning of Chesapeake.


This book (below) examines the story of the Lost Colony in nearby Roanoke (currently the Outer Banks of North Carolina). The Hampton Roads/Chesapeake Bay/Eastern Shore areas of Virginia and Maryland were permanently settled after this failed attempt, which today is located about two hours away by car.

Long term residents of the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area might recognize Earl Swift’s name from his many years writing for the Virginian Pilot, the local newspaper. His recent book is a nonfiction depiction Tangier Island, which is similar to the island in Jacob Have I Loved.

This new book is also a fascinating history of the area. Jamestown is located south of the Chesapeake Bay on the James River.

You can also watch the (kind of ) accurate miniseries Jamestown, which was made in the UK by the folks who brought us Downton Abbey. I know the history, and I enjoyed it…and might I add that the setting looks like the read Jamestown area.

Below is a trailer from the UK:

In the US, you can purchase it on Amazon, watch it on Amazon Prime for an extra fee, or watch in on PBS Passport if available in your area.