Natalie Babbitt: Tuck Everlasting
Bloomsbury 2003 (1975)
Who wouldn’t want to live forever? To extend one’s life so that one could savour life to the full, have new experiences, perhaps even be invulnerable to injury? There are no downsides, surely?
But a moment or two’s thought will soon reveal the drawbacks. Losing one’s friends as they grow old and die; witnessing perpetual change and not only for the better; being feared by other humans, becoming paranoid, lacking a sense of purpose or a reason for continuing. As many a fine mind has pointed out, death gives meaning to life.
This is the dilemma Winnie Foster faces when, constrained and restricted by her family, she determines to escape her bounds and go into the nearby woodland. This one act, determined on at the height of an oppressive summer, combines with two other coincidences to put Winnie in danger, the Tuck family at risk of exposure and to place the threat of Eternal Life for all in the hands of those who would exploit it for gain and unforeseen consequences.
Tuck Everlasting is a beautifully wrought novella for all ages, a parable set at the end of the 19th century that speaks to any period. It interweaves a quest theme (for the Fountain of Youth), a bildungsroman (how Winnie learns to put aside childish things), a plea for compassion within a family to not over-restrict or over-protect its youngsters, and a paean for friendship. It is also lyrically written; who can resist the opening sentences of the Prologue:
The first week of August hangs at the very top of 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 is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.
There are few principal actors in this drama. Winnie, the odd Tuck family who never grow older, the mysterious and rather sinister man in the yellow suit. To be sure, there are a few others who put in brief appearances — Winnie’s mother and grandmother, Treegap’s sheriff, for example — but our focus is firmly fixed on the main characters. Will Winnie and the man in the yellow suit resist temptation? How will the Tuck family cope when their closely guarded secret comes out? How does a death change everything?
I was recommended this book, justifiably I see now, and in turn recommend it to others. It is both realistic and magical: all human life (and death) is here, and yet there are touches of magic realism, as with the recurrent encounters with a toad, one of a witch’s traditional familiars. This short tale haunts me, as I hope it may haunt you; as with Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner I feel a bit like the Wedding Guest, left sadder, maybe, but also a wiser man.