A fountain of youth

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.

21 thoughts on “A fountain of youth

  1. earthbalm

    I am intrigued, thoroughly. Not a book that I’ve ever heard mention of anywhere. Your opening sentences quote is right up my street. Thanks yet again Chris.

    1. You’re, as always, welcome, Dale—I’m grateful to Lizzie Ross for recommending this in the first place and, when my first ordered secondhand copy disappeared in the post, recommended it again.

  2. Pingback: A fountain of youth — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  3. I’ve seen the film of the same name – it is a little wisdom parable I think! One line spoken by the ‘everlasting’ father figure along the lines of ‘Some people live more in one short life time than a thousand year’ – is a real gem.

    1. I’ve yet to see the film, but will look out for it! Certainly a ‘deep’ story while maintaining a very light narrative—I can see why it’s achieved its ‘modern classic’ status.

  4. I’m just now thinking that I don’t know any reader who discovered this book as a child or teen (I first read it when I was in my late 30s). And so I’m wondering how anyone younger than 25 reacts to the situation the Tucks are in.

    Ah well, if I write any more, this will head into banally philosophical territory. So I’ll end with saying that I’m glad you enjoyed Babbitt’s book.

    1. Hmm, I may try it on a grandchild or some other youngster to see what they think. And yes, deeper analysis may be like gilding the lily! That’s the thing about parables, isn’t it, they shouldn’t need further elucidation. Anyway, Lizzie, I’m glad you pointed me in the direction of this little gem. 😊

      1. Hello! I did read this when I was a child, not sure how old, perhaps about nine? My mother gave it to me. She used to work in children’s publishing so was always discovering brilliant books for me and my brothers.

        Even though I read so many good books, this one really struck me, I still remember being almost shocked by it, it was so sad and unlike most of the other novels I read, and felt very true in a different way to them. Through reading your excellent review, I realise I must have forgotten so much (a toad?). Do recommend it to a grandchild, I hope that they enjoy it and gain a lot from it.

        1. We remember what we choose to remember, from what strikes us from our first reading: I only remember the toad because I wondered what part it would have to play in the story, remembering the fairytale of The Princess and the Frog (though as it turns out I don’t think it has a bearing on the plot).

          How lucky you were to have your mother working in children’s publishing and passing outstanding titles on to you all—I’m really envious, though I suppose my parents did encourage me in my reading habits.

  5. I really need to reread this. I do think I was too young the first time.

    I remember enjoying other books by Natalie Babbitt as a child: The Search for Delicious, Kneeknock Rise, and The Eyes of the Amaryllis. But the details have not stuck. I should give those another look too.

      1. Alas, I do not remember much about them – I think The Search for Delicious is maybe the most well known. All are brief and quick reads.

  6. I must have seen the movie, as the story sounded familiar, but I am sure I haven’t read the book. If we could live forever,wouldn’t it be …… boring, eventually?🤔

    1. As things are going globally I’m glad I’m not immortal, but I feel for my kids and grandkids who have to suffer the long-lasting criminal actions of some of my contemporaries.

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