Narrators come in different shapes and sizes, and levels of trust.
Katherine Patterson said that the everything the narrator said in Jacob Have I Loved was “tinged with green.” In other words, her unreliable narrator was jealous of her sister. Nothing she said could be taken as truth, especially when talking about her sister. The title didn’t come from anything in the book. Rather, it is a Biblical reference to the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, sons of Isaac. At the end of his life, Issac blesses Jacob and fails to give Esau any blessing. Isaac is quoted as saying, “Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated.” (Romans 9:13). The title of the story gives away the type of narrator we should expect.
So, when I came to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s stunning book, The War That Saved My Life, it was interesting to watch the naive narrator. The book was named a 2016 Newbery Honor book, and Winner of the 2016 Schneider Family Book Award. The main character, Ada has never been out of the one-room London apartment where she lives with her mother and brother. Enter World War II, and the evacuation of children to the surrounding countryside. Ada was born with a club foot which her mother never allowed to be fixed because she was ashamed of having a cripple. The result is an eleven-year old who is naive.
Ada reports on events, such as her mother’s treatment of herself and her brother, Jamie, with a naive outlook. She doesn’t know how cruelly she has been treated. She doesn’t realize she’s been raised in great poverty. She doesn’t realize. . . many things.
But the narration explains things clearly enough that the reader knows. The author skillfully develops a deep sympathy for Ada and Jamie, as they are moved to a middle-class home in the country, where Ada discovers that she isn’t daft or dotty or crazy. She discovers that her brain is a long ways from her foot and being “crippled” doesn’t mean she’s stupid.
The story works because of the naive narrator. If the child narrating understood the depth of the mother’s cruelty, the story wouldn’t have worked. Bradley accomplishes this by using straight-forward descriptions without tinging the words with negative emotions. At least not till very late in the story.
If you want to use a naive narrator, or just study a different type of narrator, read this amazing book.
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