Katherine Paterson Paterson, Katherine (Womeldorf) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katherine (Womeldorf) Paterson 1932–

American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Paterson is considered one of the most important contemporary authors for young adults. Much of her fiction is concerned with moral decisions and the process of self-realization in her young protagonists. Paterson has been praised for investigating topics not often treated in young adult fiction. Among the issues she examines are destructive emotional responses to difficult situations, such as the death of friends. Paterson's early work is classified as historical fiction, while her more recent novels deal with contemporary problems.

Paterson was born in China and lived there until the age of twelve, when she came to the United States. She later received a degree in theology and served as a missionary in Japan for several years. Paterson's knowledge of Japanese culture and history has provided the background for three of her novels. The Sign of the Chrysanthemum (1973), Of Nightingales That Weep (1974), and The Master Puppeteer (1976) share historical Japan as their setting and are highly regarded for their accurate depictions of Japanese civilization. Critics also note that these novels include well-developed characters and suspenseful plots. The Master Puppeteer won a National Book Award.

Beginning with Bridge to Terabithia (1977), Paterson shifted her setting to contemporary urban America. The novel, which won a Newbery Medal, brings together Jess and Leslie, two teenagers with different cultural backgrounds, and focuses on their friendship and Jess's reaction to Leslie's death. Paterson was praised for creating believable characters and for her sensitive treatment of death. Another novel which explores modern concerns, The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978), revolves around a foster child who must return to her real mother after learning to love her replacement mother. This work won a National Book Award.

Jacob Have I Loved (1980) is considered by many critics to be Paterson's best work. In this story of a teenage girl who learns to cope with the impressive accomplishments of her twin sister, Paterson examines such topics as sibling rivalry, religious beliefs, and the importance of love between family members. Although some critics were dismayed at the lack of humor in this novel, especially compared to some of her earlier works, most asserted that Paterson's characters in this work were among her most impressive creations and that her setting evoked the richness of the Chesapeake Bay area. Paterson won a second Newbery Medal for Jacob Have I Loved.

In her recent novel Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom (1983) Paterson returns to historical fiction, this time setting her story in nineteenth-century China. Like her early work, this novel combines an exciting adventure story with extensive historical detail and believable characters.

(See also CLC, Vol. 12; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; and Something about the Author, Vol. 13.)

Barbara Elleman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With dexterity, the author of Bridge to Terabithia … creates nine insightful stories [in Angels and Other Strangers] that stir the emotions while reflecting the joy of the Christmas season…. [These] tales celebrate the birth of Jesus through the loneliness, fears, hopes, and simple beliefs of men, women, and children but never lapse into sentimentality or zealous pomposity…. Such scope offers a broad base for family sharing where nuances of meaning can be discussed and savored.

Barbara Elleman, in a review of "Angels and Other Strangers: Family Christmas Stories," in Booklist, Vol. 76, No. 2, September 15, 1979, p. 126.

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Critics and the many readers who have praised Paterson's previous books will probably mark [Angels and Other Strangers] A +. Each story concerns a surprising spiritual gift bestowed during the Christmas season to people who need it desperately…. [The] stories star entirely different characters and situations, making up a group of impressive entertainments, written with warmth and style.

A review of "Angels and Other Strangers," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 216, No. 13, September 24, 1979, p. 104.

Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paterson's well-tuned, sentimental Christmas stories [in Angels and Other Strangers] seem less well suited to a children's book than to a family magazine, especially a church magazine—and indeed the flap tells us that they were originally read in Christmas Eve church services by the author's minister husband. Of the nine, three effect epiphanies of sorts in church…. [Several] set up encounters between comfortable middle-class Protestants and others who are poor, black, and/or outcast; in these Paterson does well with the interplay, and she never falsifies the characters on either side or overplays her hand. This is several notches above the usual Christmas story collection, and a boon for groups concerned with the meaning of the holiday.

A review of "Angels and Other Strangers," in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XLVII, No. 20, October 15, 1979, p. 1211.

Karen M. Klockner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With her gifts of insight and compassion [Katherine Paterson in Angels and Other Strangers] weaves stories about miracles of the Christmas season—miracles that take place on a truly human level. Each story is based on the Christian message of the birth of Christ and the significance that message takes on for the characters. She writes of the poor, the desolate, and the lonely as well as of the arrogant, the complacent, and the proud…. The stories are deeply moving and filled with humor. They are based not on a formal, theoretical Christianity but on a faith that is rich with human understanding.

Karen M. Klockner, in a review of "Angels and Other Strangers: Family Christmas Stories," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LV, No. 6, December, 1979, p. 650.

Ellen Rudin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katherine Paterson, the author of several distinguished novels for young readers, here presents a collection of nine short stories [Angels and Other Strangers]….

Besides being entertaining, these tender stories remind us of what Christmas is all about—tolerance, forgiveness, love, patience, generosity, kindness, faith. Most seem intended for adults, although two come quite close to being genuine children's stories—"Many Happy Reruns," in which a young girl runs to the statue of Jesus in a church, thinking she has killed her baby brother because she hit him in jealousy and anger; and "Maggie's Gift," in which two orphans are Christmas guests of a lonely widower. This story, incidentally, is the funniest of the lot and will awaken rueful recognition in both children and adults.

This modest anthology may not win new accolades for the author, but it takes its legitimate place in her oeuvre….

Ellen Rudin, in a review of "Angels and Other Strangers: Family Christmas Stories," in The New York Times Book Review, December 2, 1979, p. 40.

Barbara Elleman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Jacob Have I Loved] Paterson weaves her background into a colorful but overly detailed canvas, sensitively picturing Louise as a strong-willed, strident, haunting characters. 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. (pp. 255-56)

Barbara Elleman, in a review of "Jacob Have I Loved," in Booklist, Vol. 77, No. 3, October 1, 1980, pp. 255-56.

Zena Sutherland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"… Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated," was the quotation that her senile, spiteful grandmother had pointed out to Louise [in Jacob Have I Loved]…. This theme of twin-envy is set on a small island in Chesapeake Bay, the setting made vivid and colored by local idiom. The story is told by Louise in retrospect, after she has broken away from the island and found her own career and her own family; it is brought full circle when she (now a nurse in a mountain community) delivers twins to a patient; the first is healthy, the second frail and needing attention, and Louise tells the newborn infants' grandmother to hold the first-born, "Hold him as much as you can." A strong novel, this, with depth in characterization and with vitality and freshness in the writing style. (pp. 60-1)

Zena Sutherland, in a review of "Jacob Have I Loved," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Vol. 34, No. 3, November, 1980, pp. 60-1.

Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We meet Louise Bradshaw [of Jacob Have I Loved] in the summer of 1941, smarting under the disproportionate attention lavished on her fragile, musically talented twin sister Caroline since their birth 13 years earlier…. The interesting aspect of all Louise's torment and self-sacrifice is the growing realization that it isn't being forced on her. But not until she has settled down as a nurse-midwife (the only medical help) in a small Appalachian community—marrying a man with three children to boot—does she recognize and freely accept that she was destined to fulfill herself in a life of service. Paterson has to get into these later years to make the point, and to avoid the instant realizations that substitute in too many juvenile novels. However, this tends to flatten the tone and blur the shape of the novel. Louise's earlier, intense feelings evoke recognition and sympathy, but this hasn't the resonant clarity of Bridge to Terabitha or The Great Gilly Hopkins.

A review of "Jacob Have I Loved," in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XLVIII, No. 21, November 1, 1980, p. 1399.

Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the years since turning from her earlier, Japan-based novels (most notably the award-winning The Master Puppeteer), Katherine Paterson has created a handful of engagingly rakish young Americans. The two mavericks of Bridge to Terabithia and the incorrigible title character of The Great Gilly Hopkins are spunky, independent, and sharply observed. Both books won several kinds of prizes each, but my own private prize goes to Gilly—always a foster child, never a daughter. I'd adopt her any day.

Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson's sixth novel, centers on an ugly duckling of such endurance and rough charm that readers should take to her immediately. "Wheeze" Bradshaw...

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Paul Heins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The author of Bridge to Terabithia … has again written [in Jacob Have I Loved] a story that courageously sounds emotional depths. Acknowledging her great interest in life in Chesapeake Bay, she describes the activities of the watermen living on a sparsely inhabited island during World War II and shows how the ethos of its isolated, strict Methodist community affected the thoughts and feelings of a rugged but sensitive and intelligent girl. (p. 622)

In addition to evoking the atmosphere of the remote island and the stark simplicity of its life—even supplying considerable detail about the ways and means of its shellfish industry—the author has developed a story of great dramatic power; for Wheeze is always candid in recounting her emotional experiences and reactions. At the same time, the island characters come to life in skillful, terse dialogue; Wheeze's grandmother actually touches on a daemonic dimension. The everyday realism, the frequent touches of humor, and the implications of the narrative speak for themselves; the Biblical allusions add immeasurably to the meaning of the story and illuminate the prolonged—often over-whelming—crisis in the protagonist's life. And the tension of the narrative is resolved in a final harmony best expressed by the concluding line of Milton's Samson Agonistes: "And calm of mind, all passion spent." (pp. 622-23)

Paul Heins, in a review of "Jacob Have I Loved," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LVI, No. 6, December, 1980, pp. 622-23.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Jones]: Your first three books are set in feudal Japan. Why did you choose historical settings for your first three novels?

[Paterson]: For one thing, it's interesting. For another, if you have trouble plotting as I do, history is a great help. You have all of these wonderful events happening in history and you can weave your story in and out of them. Historical settings are fascinating and helpful. That's why I use them. (p. 192)

[Jones]: Could you give an example of where you have gotten the basic idea for one of your novels—perhaps The Master Puppeteer where the puppet theater is such an unusual device for a novel.

[Paterson]: I'm always interested...

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Marcus Crouch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katherine Paterson won a second Newbery Medal with [Jacob Have I Loved]. I am not sure that she would have qualified for a Carnegie, but then the Americans like their emotions hot and hearts on sleeves. There is plenty of action and passion here but not a lot of stoicism.

Let me be fair. Mrs. Paterson is a woman of formidable intelligence and unshakable integrity. She shirks no issues in a story of a twin baulked at every stage of life by the effortless brilliance of her sister. Although the story is told by "Wheeze" (Louise) the reader is nevertheless able to see, despite the distorted view of the narrator, that Caroline is a gentle, kind and talented girl. It is not her fault that everything...

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Anthea Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If the American author Katherine Paterson had been writing a century ago, her evident Christian commitment would not, of course, have been anything out of the ordinary. Instead it would have been the expected norm, with a large area of common ground known to exist between the writer, her readers and her reviewers. But how does an author deal with such a commitment now, when the common assumptions are not nearly so widespread, and to express them explicitly may alienate rather than attract?… Looking at Katherine Paterson's novels, I think the use she makes of her beliefs in them is something of a phenomenon for the late twentieth century, and an interesting one. Perhaps the use she does not make of them is...

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Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom, as in much of her previous work, Katherine Paterson writes about the difficult but enlightening processes through which young people who are prematurely left to their own resources become acquainted with the compromises and obligations that are necessary to survival in the adult world…. [The constants in her work] are the sensitivity, humor and clarity with which Paterson considers the many nuances of her central theme.

Paterson treads a fine line between "juvenile" and "adult" fiction, and never has that line been finer than it is in Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom. Indeed, she has written a more accomplished work of fiction, and certainly a deeper...

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Stephanie Zvirin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom] Paterson uses 15-year-old Wang Lee's experiences over a four-year period as a device to express China's political turmoil during the mid-nineteenth century…. [While] Paterson bases her novel on actual history, she fails to take full advantage of the dramatic potential of her material, relying instead on some blatant contrivances to further the plot and letting the narrative bog down amidst sermonic, confusing descriptions of Heavenly philosophy. Nevertheless, Paterson is obviously a serious, polished, and evocative writer and her book holds out for special readers a meticulously fashioned view of another culture and times gone by. (pp. 1333-34)


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Zena Sutherland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The historical and cultural details [in Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom] are vivid, the book giving a great deal of information about [China] as well as about the Heavenly Kingdom and its warriors. It follows the lives of Wang Lee and Mei Lin as they participate (separately or together) in military marches, battles, and camp life, concluding with their union, at the close of the book, and their settlement into the ancestral hut of Wang Lee's family. This is a fascinating story, and well-told; if it does not have the emotional impact of Paterson's earlier historical fiction (Of Nightingales That Weep, The Master Puppeteer) it has pace and color, and it is particularly interesting in its reflection of...

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Ethel R. Twichell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom] Wang and Mei Lin are swept into the marches and battles of the Taiping and experience an endless parade of death and violence. Separated during the course of the war campaigns, their ultimate meeting and marriage seems almost an anticlimax after the fearful ordeals they have endured. The book portrays a sweeping panorama of human experience during a bitter period of Chinese history, but Wang and Mei Lin emerge less as real people than as pawns flung hither and thither by the tides of war. As always, the author's control over her material lends credibility to the writing and sheds light on a time which will be unfamiliar to most readers; some of them, however, may miss the...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom Wang Lee's] rise and fall and his recapture by the kidnappers while on a spying mission are stark and gripping; his ecstasy and growing disillusionment as the killings increase and spread to civilians in the name of peace are well conveyed. More closely bound to specific events and causes than Paterson's Japanese historic fiction, this book will have to be introduced. A "Note to the Reader" provides some background information about the events and the times, but Paterson does not adequately integrate the historical facts into the story. Often the characters are vehicles for the theme rather than individuals in their own right. However, Paterson has written a strong adventure...

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M. Sarah Smedman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In her writings and conversations about her work, Katherine Paterson repeatedly raises issues which emerge as artistic challenges for her. Among these are her commitment to the young reader's right to an absorbing story and her difficulties with plotting. Herself imbued with the Christian spirit, all Paterson's stories—whether they are set in feudal Japan or World War II Chesapeake Bay—dramatize a young protagonist's encounter with the mysteries of grace and love. Her published work reveals that many of Paterson's problems with plot may derive from the challenge of discovering and sequencing a series of episodes that will present honestly and nondidactically a theme that has no sequence in it…. A plot, as C. S....

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