I hadn’t planned to read Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt until I saw Carrie’s review of it, and even then, it wasn’t high on the TBR list. But a couple of weeks ago I was looking for a quote about August and came across this one:
“The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot.”
It’s the opening sentence from Tuck Everlasting, and it so arrested me that I had to read the book. Thankfully it was available for the Kindle for a good price.
Ten year old Winnie Foster is contemplating running away. As an only child of a fairly strict and controlling family, she’s restless to get out from under the constant watchfulness and longs to do “something interesting–something that’s all mine. Something that would make some kind of difference in the world.” She can’t quite muster the courage to run away, but she does venture out into the woods near her family’s home, something she has never done before. She is startled to come upon a teenage boy drinking from a stream, and they converse easily. But when she wants a drink from the stream, he tries to keep her from doing so, which raises her ire. When the boy’s mother and brother happen along, they whisk Winnie away to their home.
After Winnie simmers down from being kidnapped, the Tuck family explains that they had to do what they did, and after they explain, they’ll be very glad to take her back home the next day. They share that 87 years ago, they came across this same woods and spring and drank from it, as did their horse. They didn’t know at first that anything was different. But when different ones of them had serious accidents but didn’t die, and after a while they realized that none of them was aging (not even the horse), they tried to trace back the cause. When they came back to the spring years later, the tree near where they stopped had not grown at all, and the “T” the father had carved there looked freshly done. So they covered up the spring with rocks. They could not stay in one place for long because when people noticed they didn’t age, they accused them of witchcraft.
Winnie isn’t sure she believes the story, but she likes the Tucks. The father, Angus, explains why it is so important for her to keep their secret. But what neither of them realize is that the secret is already out: a nameless man in a yellow suit has been following, questioning, and has overheard. But he’s not inclined to keep any secrets: in fact, he wants to profit by them.
I’ll leave the story there so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t read it. As I read, I kept wondering what the author was trying to say about life and death. But according to one interview, she said:
People are always looking for a lesson in it, but I don’t think it has one. It presents dilemmas, and I think that’s what life does! I dealt with a lot of dilemmas before I even started school. I think a lot of adults would like to think that things are simple for kids, but that’s not so. I get a lot of letters from students and teachers saying they spend a lot of time debating the things that happen in Tuck.… I think the book doesn’t present any lessons about what’s right and what’s wrong, but it does point out how difficult these decisions are.
(Warning: The interview does contain vital plot points, so it might be best read after reading the book.)
Each of the Tucks has a different viewpoint about their situation. The mother, Mae, feels that there is nothing they can do about it so they may as well make the best of it. The father, Tuck, mourns the fact that in the normal course of things, they’re “stuck,” that everything and everyone else is “moving and growing and changing” except for them.
Your time’s not now. But dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it’s useless, too. It don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.
Miles, the oldest son, has lost the most. He was married with two children when his wife noticed he wasn’t aging, and she took the children and left, fearing witchcraft. This was before they figured out what caused it, so he had no explanation. He tells Winnie, “It’s no good hiding yourself away, like Pa and lots of other people. And it’s no good just thinking of your own pleasure, either. People got to do something useful if they’re going to take up space in the world.”
And Jesse, forever seventeen, thinks life to be enjoyed to the hilt.
I’ve thought that if I had the option to stay forever at one certain age, which would I choose? I don’t know – they all have their advantages and disadvantages. But being stuck at one age, you would lose that anticipation of what’s around the next bend. Thankfully eternal life in heaven will be a different situation.
I thought the story was certainly interesting and thought-provoking, and the characters were well-drawn and likeable. But what stood out to me was Babbitt’s writing. Beside the quote at the beginning, these sentences or phrases stood out to me:
…A stationery cloud of hysterical gnats suspended in the heat above the road.
The toad…gave a heave of muscles and plopped its heavy mudball of a body a few inches farther away from her.
…An enormous tree thrust up, its thick roots rumpling the ground ten feet around in every direction.
The sun was dropping fast now, a soft red sliding egg yolk…
I have not seen the recent film, but I’d like to some day.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)