The best part of Katherine Paterson’s Jip, His Story (set in 1855; and winner of the 1997 O’Dell Award) is the unexpected appearance of Lyddie Worthen, the mill girl from Lyddie. That book can’t be beat in terms of its depressing-ness (I found it sadder than Bridge to Terabithia, and that’s saying something), so when Lyddie appeared in Jip’s story, college-educated and a teacher, I couldn’t have been happier that she’d achieved her dreams at last.
But long before Lyddie shows up, we’re introduced to Jip, so-named because he fell off the back of a wagon as a baby and was taken to the poor farm (think London workhouses, but in rural Vermont) when no one claimed him. Jip knows nothing about his past, and life at the farm is tolerable, if not enjoyable. Because Jip has a way with animals, he practically runs the place, and his work is the only thing keeping the residents from starvation.
Jip, though a far cry from the feisty Lyddie, is strong precisely because he’s kind in the face of poverty and brutality. He’s kind to the farm animals, kind to Sheldon, the simple-minded boy others treat as dumb manual labor, and he’s kind even to Put, the lunatic locked in a cage, who was shipped to the poor farm because the county didn’t want to pay for his stay at the asylum. Jip’s so busy being kind that he barely notices life hasn’t been kind to him–until others start to return the favor.
Under Teacher’s (Lyddie’s) encouragement, Jip learns to read and believes he deserves more in life. Put, in his saner moments, helps out on the farm and becomes a true friend to Jip. Around the same time, a stranger shows up in town, someone who takes an unusual interest in Jip, but alternately repulses and fascinates him with his stories about a man searching for his long-lost son. It’s the kind of slick, oily kindness Jip could do without, yet he can’t help feeling hopeful.
The mystery of Jip’s past, the mysterious stranger, and the friendship of Lyddie and her fiance Luke Stevens all wind up in a wrenching, satisfying ending. The solution was so obvious, but it eluded me until 3/4 of the way through, and it was like that moment in Keeper when everything suddenly makes sense–except I should have figured it out sooner.
And the history angle? Even though Jip’s particular struggles are period-specific (poor farms have gone out of fashion, thank goodness), I couldn’t help but think about the news every time the book mentions education, public funding or mental health care. We’re still wrestling with the same problems, and that makes Jip’s story timeless.