Stories of My Life
Dial Books, 2014
320 pp., $17.99
Rachel Marie Stone
Katherine Paterson's World
When I was a child, I read and re-read books. To the frustration of my parents, my reading was decidedly indiscriminate: Frances Hodgson Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and The Baby-Sitters Club. Little Women, Elisabeth Prentiss' Stepping Heavenward, and those series from Christian presses—the Mandie and Elizabeth Gail mysteries I found in the little-used church library (in which I, being the only child of the only pastor, and living in the parsonage next door, spent many lovely solitary hours browsing and reading).
In those days, I conceived of the world and most people and their varied creations—books, films, art—as being clearly split in two: Christian on one side; non-Christian (and possibly anti-Christian) on the other. If I doubted the validity of this assessment of the world, I did not know how to articulate it. When, in my reading of "secular" books—any that would not be sold at the Christian bookstore—a character happened to pray or go to church or refer to a biblical story, my response was joyful surprise: maybe Ramona Quimby was saved, after all.
Neither, in those days, was I able to articulate the difference between greater and lesser quality. I read everything—classics and junk—voraciously and repeatedly. It was, however, the books I now recognize as "better"—the books my parents were pleased to see me reading—that I re-read more frequently than the others, thus inadvertently proving C. S. Lewis' contention in Experiment in Criticism.
Among the books my parents were pleased to see me returning to were those by Katherine Paterson. My favorite, then and now, was Jacob Have I Loved, the story of Sara Louise "Wheeze" Bradshaw, who lives on a fictional island in the Chesapeake, and in the shadow of her tremendously gifted and beautiful twin, Caroline, struggling to make her own way in a world where her options seem to be narrowly circumscribed. Sara Louise stops praying and stops going to church; at one point, she says, "if I had believed in God I could have cursed him and died." She doesn't curse God, and when at last she finds her calling, God's grace and providence are subtly invoked.
At the time I had no idea that Paterson was a pastor's wife, and that she had been a Presbyterian missionary in Japan; the daughter of missionaries, Paterson was born in China in 1932. Her books did not appear on the shelves of our church library or upon those at the Christian bookstore. They are full of irreverence and doubt, cussing and bad attitudes. Indeed, Paterson's most highly acclaimed books—including Jacob Have I Loved and also Bridge to Terebithia and The Great Gilly Hopkins—have been among her most frequently banned and challenged, not least by Christians fearful, for example, of the supposedly pagan dabbling in certain passages in Bridge to Terebithia that most readers would probably be inclined to describe as "children playing imaginatively in the woods."
This particular irony is not lost on Paterson, who, in her new memoir Stories of My Life, remarks on the theological conservatism of her parents—both of whom loved those of Katherine's books they lived to read. Paterson, who served a term as the National Ambassador for Children's Literature, also describes being viewed suspiciously for her Christianity: "It seems in this day and age it would be more forgivable to say you were once a prostitute than to reveal the fact that you were once a Christian missionary."
As Paterson tells it, she went to Japan as a missionary because she didn't want to burden the world with "another mediocre writer." When, after reading a beautifully written essay of Katherine's, a professor suggested she try her hand at writing professionally, Paterson demurred. As a lifelong reader and a summa cum laude graduate in English literature, the young Katherine Womeldorf was sure she "knew what great writing was," and "had no intention of being a writer."
"Maybe," her teacher replied, "that's what God is calling you to be."
Katherine could not yet fathom why God might need HER for such a purpose, so for a time she lived and worked in Japan as a missionary—a transformative experience, as she tells it. Katherine's family, the Womeldorfs, had had to flee China several times in the 1930s and '40s, including just prior to the infamous "Rape of Nanking," and though she tells the story gently, it is clear that Katherine, who strongly identified with Chinese culture (at age two, she spoke Chinese more fluently than most Chinese two-year-olds), harbored a share of prejudice that was resolved, finally, by living among and learning to love Japanese people: "to be loved by people you thought you hated is an experience I wish everyone could have," she writes.