Friday, November 06, 2009

tuck everlasting

Our book today is Natalie Babbitt's perfect little gem of a story, her 1975 novel Tuck Everlasting (with apologies for the movie-cover featuring the brainless Alexis Bledel and the tobacco-wasted Jonathan Jackson)(although if it's any consolation, the movie itself is quite good, with an especially brisk, reptilian performance by Ben Kingsley), which is just about as sweet and simple and penetrating a dramatization as I've ever read of what immortality might be like for a group of ordinary people who happened to stumble into it.

That group is the Tucks: father Angus, mother Mae, and their two sons, beautiful Jesse and brooding Miles, and Babbitt's story finds them all gathering together in the woods outside the village of Treegap. The Tucks make a point of coming together once every ten years or so, to spend some time as a family, and the locus they choose is the hidden spring in the center of the wood where, as thirsty prospective settlers eighty years ago, they paused to take a drink and found the water had made them immortal. They didn't realize what had happened to them at first - they moved on, Miles got married and had children - but eventually it became clear that everyone around them was aging while they stayed exactly the same. This has forced them to live a kind of gypsy life, never staying in any one place for more than about twenty years, lest the local inhabitants start to grow suspicious. Our story just happens to find them all gathered together for the first time in ten years, and on the cusp of that meeting, our ten-year-old heroine Winnie Foster, out wandering in the woods, spots Jesse sipping from the hidden spring and falls instantly in love (the book stresses repeatedly how beautiful he is, "even up close" - add that to the fact that he possesses a dark secret he's ambivalent about sharing with Winnie and you see just how close this book might have come to Twilight territory).

The Tucks bring her into their home in order to figure out what to do about the fact that she now knows about the secret spring, and when Winnie - who's been bossed and cosseted her whole life in her parents' tidy, expensive home - sees the lived-in ramshackle house of the Tuck family, she's right away likes it:

And still this was not all. For, on the old beamed ceiling of the parlor, streaks of light swam and danced and wavered like a bright mirage, reflected through the windows from the sunlit surface of the pond. There were bowls of daisies everywhere, gay white and yellow. And over everything was the clean, sweet smell of the water and its weeds, the chatter of a swooping kingfisher, the carol and trill of a dozen other kinds of bird, and occasionally the thrilling bass note of an unastonished bullfrog at ease somewhere along the muddy banks.

Into it all came Winnie, eyes wide, and very much amazed. It was a whole new idea to her that people could live in such disarray, but at the same time she was charmed. It was ... comfortable. Climbing behind Mae up the stairs to see the loft, she thought to herself: "Maybe it's because they think they have forever to clean it up." And this was followed by another thought, far more revolutionary: "Maybe they just don't care!"

The Tucks' main goal in showing her their home is to sit her down and try to convince her that telling anybody about the hidden spring would be a terrible idea - that it's not only natural but desirable that all things age and die and make room for new things. It's a lot to ask a ten-year-old to take in, but in Winnie is a wonderful character, wise beyond her years, and she's largely certain even before her talks with the family that she won't tell anybody. Angus Tuck takes her out on the pond for a heartfelt talk about how he and his family aren't really part of life anymore - and how distressing he finds that. And Miles takes her fishing on the pond and talks a little about that same distress, about knowing his own family grew up and grew old while he didn't change at all. Their talk is interrupted by a tug on the line:

And then Miles caught a fish. There it flopped, in the bottom of the boat, its jaws working, its gills fanning rapidly. Winnie drew up her knees and stared at it. It was beautiful, and horrible too, with gleaming, rainbow-colored scales, and an eye like marble beginning to dim even as she watched it. The hook was caught in its upper lip, and suddenly Winnie wanted to weep. "Put it back, Miles," she said, her voice dry and harsh. "Put it back right away."

Miles started to protest, and then, looking at her face, he picked up the trout and gently worked the barbed hook free. "All right, Winnie," he said. He dropped the fish over the edge of the boat. It flipped its tail and disappeared under the lily pads.

The plot thickens when a man comes to Treegap intent on finding the Tucks and their miraculous spring, and the last 50 pages of the book blur by, but for my money, it's these gentle ruminations on the nature of mortality that make Tuck Everlasting such a marvelous book (and such a perfect example of the phenomenon I've mentioned here at Stevereads often enough, how the best so-called "children's" and "young adult" fiction is really "everybody" fiction). The choice that Winnie makes at the novel's close is both predictable and stunning, and it will send the reader (perhaps especially the young reader) away with a head full of questions about what really matters in life. Excellent questions for anybody to ask, and a fine book to do the prompting.


Cera said...

I read this book over & over again in grade school (in the mid 80s) and loved it passionately. Winnie's choice was not the one I would have made as a child, and yet I sympathised with her and moreover respected her, which did make me spend a lot of time thinking about why she chose as she did. A very thought-provoking book -- I should get a copy for my own daughter.

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