Stories of My Life
Dial Books, 2014
320 pp., $17.99
Rachel Marie Stone
Katherine Paterson's World
Later, after she married a pastor, John Paterson, and started a family of four children (two "the old fashioned way" and two adopted), Katherine felt the urge to create something that wasn't torn up, dirtied, or eaten by the end of the day. And so she began to write—"something every day," "sometimes in five minute snatches." Her first published work was called Who Am I? (a volume intended for the Sunday school curriculum, commissioned by the Presbyterian church), but it was stories that she loved and longed to create. After years of having short stories and poems rejected, Paterson resolved instead to write one chapter of a novel each week; even if no one published it, she reasoned, this practice would, at the end of a year or so, give her a book, and therefore a sense of accomplishment. Her first novel, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, was published when she was 41 years old.
Since then, Paterson has won the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award twice; she has received the Hans Christian Andersen Award (often referred to as the Nobel Prize of children's literature) and other noteworthy prizes. But the modesty of her ambitions after winning her first Newbery (she resolved never to buy dried skim milk again, and never has) persists to this day. "Gratitude, unlike fame, is something you can actually feel," she writes. Her joy is in the creation of her work and in the pleasure and instruction it has offered to her readers. Stories of My Life—itself appropriate for young readers, but of potential interest to those who write for children and to all fans of Paterson's work—is graced with her humility and her gentle humor; it also offers insight into her novels.
Due to her family's frequent relocation, young Katherine was often the "new kid," an outcast who spoke English with a British accent, wore cast-off clothes, and ate odd, meager lunches. As a first-grader, she was the only child in her class who didn't receive a Valentine card. When her mother suggested that she write a novel about that day, Katherine replied, "Why mother […] all my books are about the day I didn't get any Valentines!" Indeed; it is the marginal, the lonely, the poor and the poor in spirit whom Paterson renders most affectionately, and this preferential option for the wretched has its seeds in Paterson's own experience. "Some of my best writing," she remarks, "has its seeds in [an] awful year"—a year in which she underwent treatment for cancer and in which her young son David's best friend, Lisa, was killed by a bolt of lightning. These events helped to shape Bridge to Terebithia, still one of her best-known books.
Toward the end of Bridge, Jesse Aarons reflects on how Leslie, now dead, "had taken him from the cow pasture and into Terebithia and made him a king." That is what Paterson's vision does; as she told Christianity Today in a 2007 interview: "hope and grace are going to infuse my work—not that I put them in, but because I can't help having them there."
In the final chapter of Stories of My Life, Paterson—now well into her eighties—recounts her beloved husband's "final gift" to her. His last week of life, dying at home of multiple systems atrophy, was "the most blessed week" of Katherine's life: "He showed me in his dying that there is nothing to fear in death."
Paterson and her work still defy easy categorization. Is she a Christian writer? Are her books Christian fiction? But maybe those are the wrong questions to ask. This autobiography, coming late in life from one of the most distinguished contributors to American literature for children, evokes a life lived in wildly varied times and places, with unexpected honor and fame, along with loneliness, mundane troubles, and tragic loss. From beginning to end, it offers a profoundly grace-filled vision—not unlike the one that shapes her novels—in which no one, not even the most foul-mouthed and awkward, is beyond the reach of grace.
Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press).
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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