Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

One of the good things about my new job (high-volume babysitter) is that it gives me an excuse to revisit some of the classics of Young Adult literature, under the pretense that I am trying to decide what to have my class read. You and I know the truth: I love sub-200 page books with simple vocabulary and happy endings.

Anyhow, I begin today with Tuck Everlasting, a book I read on the train in about one day, though the fact that Alexis Bledel was on the cover got me some strange looks. I don't care. I love Alexis Bledel.

What struck me about Tuck Everlasting was how tight it was--it makes sense of course, that YA authors must be a lot more sparing with their words than adult novelists, but the market is so flooded with sprawling, unfocused tomes (and here a namecheck to the recently deceased David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest seems appropriate), that I am especially appreciative of the talent that is required to mold a compelling story into something that is brief and uncomplicated enough to keep the interest of a middle schooler.

But the problem I have with Tuck Everlasting is that it seems to take a relatively simplistic view toward its main theme: death. The story is--if you were the odd child to have never read it--about a family named Tuck, composed of a mother, father, and two (seemingly) older sons who, some eighty years prior to the setting of the novel, discovered a spring in a forest which bestowed upon them eternal life. They have long acted as keepers of this secret spring, ensuring that no one else drinks from it--because, as they describe, this seeming benefit is really a curse that makes it impossible to create lasting human relationships with anyone but their immediate relatives--that is, until a young girl named Winnie Foster complicates their existence by stumbling upon the spring. It's quite a good yarn, though it seems like only a tiny fraction of what an adult novelist might do with the same situation.

But you can see how, thematically, this might be used as a platform from which to introduce middle-school-aged children to the concept of death. I cannot help but respect this goal; it takes quite a bit of bravery to attempt to distill one of literature's most persistent and complex themes into a presentation that is so very accessible. But what Tuck Everlasting wishes to say about death--that it is as necessary a part of the human experience as life, and that the Tuck family suffers in their lack of it--is something that any sufficiently contemplative adult has already considered.

I am not saying that Tuck Everlasting doesn't do a commendable job of presenting death to its audience, but I am saying that it is not a book--like the one I am to post on next--that I feel can be appreciated on an adult level as well. It is a book written for a time when a child's fear of death, still a faraway and unapproachable thing, can be allayed by pithy philosophizing. In truth, as these children will learn, into adulthood death remains present, frightening, and ill-understood no matter how much we understand the salience of the Tucks' pro-death sermonizing. How many minds of how many generations have set themselves to understanding death through art, literature, religion and philosophy, and have we truly ever come closer than Shakespeare, who called it an "undiscovered country?"

And then I think of these students of mine, who live in a neighborhood of New York City that, while not as impoverished or plagued by crime as Harlem, the southern Bronx, or Bedford-Stuyvesant, certainly has a higher incidence of violence than the areas in which any of us live. Tuck Everlasting may have made my young self feel more at ease about death, but would it seem patronizing to a student who has witnessed the untimely death of a friend or a relative? Much better, I think, would be Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, a much more mimetic book about a young student dealing with death.

4 comments:

Carlton said...

Bridge to Terabithia is a great book. I was one of those odd kids who never read Tuck Everlasting.

Mayra Platero said...

This book is awesome!:b

julia.angelina said...

I don't think this is a fair assessment of the book at all. As a kid, my mother died rather untimely and horrifically. I read Tuck for the first time a year or so after the fact, and it did a lovely, truthful and enchanting job of making sense of the necessity of death. I reread the book during the first week of August every year (when the story takes place) and I am still as awestruck by it in my mid twenties as I was as a kid. Same goes for my sixty some year old dad. I think that perhaps "adult" writers who wax on about fear of death might take a cue from the beautifully simple message of this book. Death hurts, death is scary, death can be ugly. But it is certainly necessary. You are not the hub of the ferris wheel, you're merely along for the ride. This message touches on more than physical death, but change in general.

Anonymous said...

I love this book!!!