This month’s selection in my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is Jip, His Story by Katherine Paterson. Jip, His Story won the historical fiction award in 1997.
Jip is an abandoned boy who knows nothing about his background, other than he was left on the road. He lives at the local poor farm and takes care of everyone else. But, when a mentally disturbed man is sent to the farm, Jip’s life begins to change.
Somehow I missed the date at the beginning of the book, so it took me a long time to figure out that it is set in the mid-1800s. I knew it was either 19th Century or very early 20th, but I couldn’t narrow it down until the last half of the book.
And you know what? I was okay with that. To be fair, the cover image helped me. But, Paterson hooked me with her characters and gave just enough details so I could picture what was happening. I didn’t need to have paragraphs upon paragraphs of setting details. When Paterson did give details, they were pertinent, like the teacher giving Jip the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
So my takeaway–only use relevant details as seen through the character’s experience. Sometimes, that will mean lots of description, sometimes it won’t.
As for character, Jip has a hard life, but what endears him to me is his love for his friends and for animals. He has a very unusual capacity for compassion, especially for someone who has experienced so little. But as Jip loves his friends, we see they love him in return. And it’s his love for his friends and his sense of responsibility for them that gives him his purpose in life, as well as puts him in the most danger. Very well done.
There are lots of historical things to talk about in this book, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. So I’ll focus on the thing that was new to me–the poor farm.
Poor farms were very common in the 19th and 20th Centuries. If a person could not take care of themselves, had no family to provide for them, and church and charity funds were exhausted, people could be sent to these poor farms that were funded by local taxpayers. Able-bodied people were to raise food to help offset the costs, but often the residents were elderly, very young, or mentally handicapped or disturbed.
In Jip, he is the most able-bodied and responsible, and he’s only 12ish. One of his dear friends was “simple” and another was a “lunatic.” But they helped him as they were able.
Poor farms were not great places, but sometimes they were an improvement over some of the previous ways of helping the poverty-stricken.
The novel also showed how vulnerable people were economically. One of the families who came to Jip’s poor farm was the widow and children of a drunkard. Once the father died, they had no way of providing for themselves. This vulnerability flew in the face of conventional wisdom of the time. People often thought poverty was self-inflicted, possibly by laziness or immorality.
For more history of poor farms, check out these sites:
When I was researching Katherine Paterson, I saw she had written a book called Lyddie (1991). Jip’s teacher was named Lyddie, and it turns out the book is about Lyddie’s early years as a Factory Girl in a textile mill in Lowell, Mass. However, a really cool thing about both Lyddie and Jip, His Story, is that both main characters listened to someone read Oliver Twist, and they became so involved in the story that it actually helped them survive their tough circumstances, and then to move beyond survival. What great examples of how important Story is to us!
For more information about my Scott O’Dell Challenge, see this post.
Join me the last Tuesday of August for the 2014 award winner, Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill.
Have you read Jip, His Story? What endears a character to you? What do you know about poor farms? When has Story helped you survive or thrive?