Katherine Paterson, winner of almost every imaginable award in the realm of children's literature and deserving of that recognition, has written a novel for older children and adults. her narrative-as-memoir strikes the consistently wry tone of one looking back on youth. Even so, each incident and feeling in the life of her young protagonist rings true because the younger voice is so alive and direct. This is a book full of humor and compassion and sharpness.
Sara Louis Bradshaw, given the name Wheeze by her delicate, beautiful, and gifted twin sister, wrestles from earliest childhood with the conviction that she is the forgotten, unloved sibling. In her tiny world on an island in Chesapeake Bay, where she grows up during World War II, her only friend is dull, fat Call, a boy who puts up with her because he has no one else. Into their lives comes the mysterious stranger of Louise's fantasies, a reclusive man who might be a Germany spy or perhaps an island resident who left in disgrace as a coward half a century earlier.
Slowly the world opens to Louis: first through the stranger, whom she and Call befriend; then through submerging herself in the arduous work of a waterman on her father's boat. Along the way there are encounters that culminate in her grandmother's caustic attacks. But with these experiences come insights. Never wholly explicit, such glimpses allow Louise to see in her grandmother the distillation of a lifetime of disappointment, an unextinguished and unresolved bitterness.
Following a time of peace and closeness with her father, once again developments favoring her sister bring Louise close to defeat. Only by now she has newly gathered awareness and strength. she is ready to understand that it is she who has hated herself, not her parents, not God.
The final chapters could easily become another book and seem extraneous to this one. They contai two episodes that would diminish a less powerful novel. One is Louise's ready acceptance of discouragement about becoming a doctor, and the other is the ending in which Louise as midwife delivering twins nearly forgets the healthy infant in her zeal to save the weak one, and then, remembering, urges the grandmother to hold him close while she herself nurses the frail sister. It is a pointed resolution; the author, like Louise and Call explaining their jokes to each other, insists: "Get it?"
But we have already gotten it, for the earlier, more apt ending tells us all we need to know after Louise's mother says she will miss Louise morem than she has missed the exquisite sister. "I did not press her to explain.I was too grateful for that one world that allowed me at least to leave the island and begin to build myself as a soul, separate from the long, long shadow of my twin."