Recently it was announced that US writer Katherine Paterson had won the lucrative Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. This was no surprise to avid readers of children’s literature. Since the early 70s this celebrated daughter of American missionaries in China, a youthful missionary herself in Japan, wife of a Presbyterian minister, mother of four, and devoted grandmother, has produced close to one work of fiction a year. She has won both the prestigious National Book Award and the Newbery Medal twice; and her novels have been translated into over two dozen languages.
In 1988 whispered messages, personally delivered, allowed teachers and critics of Children’s Literature to attend with little advance notice a talk given by Mrs Paterson at the University of Sydney. During her second trip to Sydney a few years later, private messengers again determined who was fortunate enough to hear her. If either of these visits had been widely publicised, it is doubtful that a room large enough to hold her loyal fans could have been found.
Both of Katherine Paterson’s semi-secret talks were memorable. Unashamedly she distinguished her own fiction—anchored in a religious view of God’s kingdom—from the species of modern literature which offers phantom pleasures but no real hope. The traditional values associated with the work of the very greatest imaginative writers—Dickens, for instance, or Hopkins—apply as much, she said, to books intended for children as to those for adults. All major literature is marked by a wholeness of vision that does not minimise serious difficulty but knows the meaning of promise.
Many readers, young and old, cry in pain at the end of The Great Gilly Hopkins and Bridge to Terabithia, which remain her best-loved novels. But it is a rare reader who finishes either book or, indeed, any of Katherine Paterson’s richly diverse fiction without feeling enlarged and consoled. Although she never minimises the sources of grief in the lives of children—eg, insoluble family conflict, extreme poverty, sudden death, or a criminal indifference to suffering—she balances painful events with such enveloping warmth and humour that a feeling of spaciousness ultimately prevails.
In works of hers in which stirring adventure predominates—particularly historical fiction set in China and Japan—features of the plot sometimes invite raised eyebrows. But even in these rollicking tales, charm saves the day. Because we enter into the characters’ emotional lives with such intensity and fullness, blemishes in the story line which in lesser writers would be unacceptable do not in the end count very much.
In every novel by Katherine Paterson, we care deeply about what happens to everyone. What the more peripheral—not simply the central—characters feel is credible, and it matters. One obvious explanation for such successful portraiture is that she enters into the inner lives of her protagonists so completely. Their thoughts, their voices when they think aloud or engage in conversations, their hesitations, fears, desires, and choices are always utterly individual. Yet the broader pertinence of the large contours of their experience is never in doubt.
Mrs Paterson has a remarkable capacity for making an entire world real—however strange, unfamiliar, or superficially alien it may at first seem. Whether her setting is a puppet theatre in 18th-century Osaka (The Master Puppeteer), crabbing boats in the Chesapeake Bay (Jacob Have I Loved), King Arthur’s Round Table (Parzival), a country music hall in Tidewater, Virginia (Come Sing, Jimmy Jo), a mid-19th century textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts (Lyddie), or the forbidding mountains of China under Manchu rule (Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom), she persuades us that she knows everything essential about its inner workings.
In Katherine Paterson’s prose there are always observations that make readers stop to reflect, rather than to go on. Sometimes a character comments philosophically in response to an apparent obstacle—as James Johnson’s grandmother does when he balks at the very idea of singing in public:
‘I don’t know how to say this, boy . . . I know you’re scairt. That ain’t no shame. But, boy . . .’ She cocked her head and sighed. ‘You got the gift.’ Her blue eyes were almost too bright and sharp. James looked away, down at this feet, to avoid the hurt of her gaze.
She sighed again. ‘Sometimes the gift seems more like a burden, but if you got it, you got it. It ain’t fittin’ to run from it. . . . The Lord don’t give private presents . . .If he give you somethin’, it’s only because he thinks you got the sense to share it or give it away. You try to keep the gift to yourself, it’s liable to rot.’
Often what gives us pause is a deep pattern of thought lodged in mystery: for instance, in Jacob Have I Loved, Sarah Louise’s failure ever to explain sufficiently to herself or to us why she cannot overcome her envy of her twin sister. Caroline is selfish, and she receives unmerited adulation. But these disagreeable features of her nature produce in Paterson’s heroine a curious, enduring hardness of heart. That we should puzzle over this, Paterson clearly intends us to do. Forgiveness, she implies strongly, is not easy—especially when long habit conspires against it.
Sometimes her major figures express such strong feeling, in ways that violate their customary self-control, that we cannot help being struck. An unforgettable instance occurs when the remarkable Maime Trotter is forced in quick succession to handle Gilly Hopkins’ maddening social worker, Miss Ellis, with whom she has tearfully expressed both her own vulnerability and her love for her rebellious foster child, and—at last on her own—Gilly herself:
‘Well, I’m sure we’ll be seeing you sometimes, Miz Ellis.’
The social worker wasn’t going to be swept out quite so easily. She set her feet apart as though fearing Trotter might try to remove her bodily and said, ‘Officer Rhine told me when he called that you had well over a hundred dollars with you last night.’
It came out sassy, but Miss Ellis just squinted her eyes and went on: ‘It’s hard to believe that it was all your money.’
“So I call taking other people’s money stealing, Miss Hopkins.’
Trotter patted Gilly’s arm as if to shush her. ‘So do we, Miz Ellis. Surely you don’t think this is the first time something like this has happened to me over the last twenty years?’
“No, I know it’s not.’
‘Then how ‘bout trusting me to handle it?’
Miss Ellis shook her head and smoothed her pants suit down over her rump before she put on her coat. “I’ll be in close touch,’ she said.
Trotter nearly shoved her out the front door. “We’re going to do just fine. Don’t worry your pretty little head about us, hear?’
‘I get paid to worry, Mrs Trotter.’
Trotter smiled impatiently and closed the door quickly. When she turned back toward Gilly, her face was like Mount Rushmore stone. Gilly blinked in surprise at the sudden and absolute change.
‘I don’t take lightly to stealing, you know.’
Gilly nodded. No use pretending sassiness.
“I figure that money ain’t all mine, right?’
‘Well, where’d you get it?’
‘I found it,’ said Gilly softly.
Trotter came over and with two hands lifted Gilly’s face to look into her own. ‘Where did you get it, Gilly?’
‘I found it behind some books next door.’
Trotter dropped her hands in disbelief. “You stole from Mr Randolph?’
“It was just lying there behind the books. He probably didn’t even—‘
‘Gilly, you stole it. Don’t put no fancy name on it. It was his, and you took it, right?’
‘I guess so.’
As this brief excerpt shows, wisdom is quietly triumphant in Katherine Paterson’s fictional universe. Her books repay devoted attention.
Dr Susan Moore is a retired teacher educator who has published widely on literature, education, religion, and culture. She taught at the Sydney Institute of Education for 14 years and worked for the Institute of Public Affairs as a research fellow and as editor of Education Monitor. Raised in New Jersey, she has lived in Australia for 40 years.