One of my desert-island books

From my other blog:

Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt (1975), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 139 pp.

I had heard about this book for many years before I finally sat down and read it in the mid-1980s, and I was sorry I had waited so long. It’s kind of young to be a classic, but I count it as a treasure, and also one of my guilty pleasures because I absolutely have to read it every fall. It may take place in August (1890), but it’s an autumnal book for me.

Most children’s books about death involve characters who tragically die young (Bridge to Terabithia, A Separate Peace). Some are so pathetically tragic (The Old Curiosity Shop) that they inspire cynicism (Oscar Wilde: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing”) or parody (Edward Gorey’s The Gashleycrumb Tinies or The Hapless Child).

This book takes a different tack. The tragedy here are the four characters (and a couple of animals, but they’re hardly worth mentioning) who can NOT die. The Tuck family can’t be killed, wounded, infected, or maimed, but they also can’t grow old. They are doomed to watch all they love — the people, the places — change and evolve and disappear around them, while they can’t change at all.

Their enemy is the mysterious Man in the Yellow Suit (creepily portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the 2002 film adaptation). He knows their secret, he knows how they got that way, and he wants it for himself, if he can only find the elusive Tucks.

Caught in the middle is Winifred Foster, ten years old and aching to be free of her mother’s and grandmother’s strictures. She discovers the Tucks and eventually they reveal their secret to her. Jesse, their younger son, wants her to become like them (I swear, this book is not about vampires, but there’s a certain similarity, don’t you think?). Will she? And will they be able to evade the Man in the Yellow Suit?

The pivotal moment, the one that gets closest to an answer to the perpetual question of why we’re here, comes between Winnie and Angus Tuck, in a rowboat on a pond. Winnie, suddenly angry, cries out that she doesn’t want to die.

“No,” said Tuck calmly. “Not now. 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.

It’s a tough lesson for anyone, adult or child. Who doesn’t “rage against the dying of the light”? Who doesn’t fantasize about what they could accomplish if they had just another century or so? Remember Groundhog Day? How many thousands of times did Phil have to relive that day until he got it right? (See WolfGnards.com for one answer to that last question — I think he undercounts; he forgot Phil’s medical training and subsequent research to cure the sick old man who kept dying on him.)

Wait, what was I saying? Oh, yeah, “if only we had more time”. Well, the final answer is: if we had additional time, we’d just waste that much more of it, because it would be that much less precious. And if we had all eternity, we’d probably never get out of bed, because what would be the point? There would ALWAYS be a tomorrow for actual accomplishments. Tuck’s answer to the age-old question is that we’re here to make a difference, and that’s hard to do if, like the rocks, you just are.

For a children’s book, it’s remarkably mature. And Babbitt’s writing is beautiful, direct and thoughtful. Here she introduces an idea that becomes important later:

The ownership of land is an odd thing when you come to think of it. How deep, after all, can it go? If a person owns a piece of land, does he own it all the way down, in ever narrowing dimensions, till it meets all other pieces at the center of the earth? or does ownership consist only of a thin crust under which the friendly worms have never heard of trespassing?

You can read Tuck Everlasting in an afternoon — a quiet rainy one is perfect. No need for the sturm und drang of a violent thunderstorm. A steady mist will do. Pour yourself a suitable drink, and enjoy.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
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