Cynthia Voigt 1942-
Cynthia Voigt 1942-
American novelist, editor, and author of young adult novels, juvenile novels, and picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Voigt's career through 2006. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volumes 13 and 48.
A versatile author who targets readers from pre-schoolers to adults, Voigt is a multiple award-winner whose novels recognize strong female protagonists and dysfunctional family relationships. Voigt is perhaps best known for her "Tillerman" novels, a seven-book series that explores the difficult adolescence of the four Tillerman children after their abandonment by their mother and adoption by their grandmother in rural Maryland. The second book in the series, Dicey's Song (1982), won the Newbery Medal, American children's literature highest honor, with A Solitary Blue (1983) earning a further Newbery Honor citation. Able to cross between varieties of genre and audience with equal grace and sophistication, Voigt and her diverse canon of fantasy, realism, and picture books display a similarly unconventional narrative perspective that defines the author's style and voice.
Voigt was born on February 25, 1942, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Frederick and Elise Irving. The second of five children, she was raised in rural Connecticut, where, like many future authors, she developed an early interest in reading. After graduating from Dana High School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1959 with distinction, Voigt began attending the prestigious Smith College, one of the seven so-called "Seven Sisters" of women's colleges in the Northeast. It was at Smith that she began to consider writing as a potential career. Following her graduation in 1963, Voigt took a job with the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency in New York. She was married in 1964 and moved to New Mexico with her new spouse, where she earned a teacher's certificate from St. Michael's College in Santa Fe. The couple eventually moved back to the East Coast, and Voigt spent the next few years working as an English teacher in various Maryland schools before her eventual divorce from her first husband in 1972. During this period, her experience with children began to re-inspire her earlier aspirations for a writing career, albeit with this new audience in mind. While teaching at the Key School in Annapolis, with her divorce finalized, she began a relationship with Walter Voigt, a Latin and Greek teacher at Key, whom she married in 1974. Voigt's pregnancy with her first child, Peter, provided her with additional time away from work to dedicate to writing, efforts which resulted in drafts of several of her early novels, including Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers (1982) and The Callender Papers (1983). Selected for printing as an unsolicited manuscript, Voigt's first young adult novel, Homecoming (1981), earned strong critical reviews and an American Book Award nomination. The Newbery Medal for Dicey's Song and Newbery Honors for A Solitary Blue quickly followed, allowing her a rapid ascent within children's literature. Despite this impressive early success, she continued to work part-time as a department chair and English teacher at the Key School until 1988, when she left to dedicate herself full time to writing. Now living in Maine with her husband, she continues to write, releasing on average a book a year.
While Voigt has successfully written for a variety of audiences, including picture books for new readers like The Rosie Stories (2003), middle school novels like her "Bad Girls" series, and mature works for college readers and adults—such as Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers and Glass Mountain (1991), respectively—Voigt's reputation is primarily based upon her young adult novels in the "Tillerman Family" and "The Kingdom" series. Voigt's approach to these works is unconventional in its utilization of an unsentimental narrative stream that defies normative conventions of young adult literature. Shying away from such standard themes of adolescent maturation as sexual development, body imagery, and religious faith, she focuses instead upon character development, particularly in the "Tillerman Family" series which dedicates itself to the establishment and evolution of not just Dicey Tillerman and her three siblings, but also upon the creation of both a distinct three-generation family and their surrounding community throughout the seven books. While each book offers an individual flashpoint in emotional growth, the series itself is meant to be a continually evolving canvas, one that Victor Watson has asserted presents maturation as "a serial process; it is never a straightforward transformation into a new and better state, and it rarely occurs as a single moment of breakthrough … but [the characters'] real maturation is a slow unending achievement of small reality truths, one of which is that the only constant is change, that maturation is forever happening." Homecoming, Dicey's Song, Sons from Afar (1987), and Seventeen against the Dealer (1989) deal directly with the Tillerman children, with the other three novels establishing a community structure for them. The Runner (1985) offers insight into the familial history of the Tillermans through the lens of their deceased uncle Samuel "Bullet" Tillerman, while A Solitary Blue and Come a Stranger (1986) each create back stories and sharply defined characterizations of Dicey's best friends, Jeff and Mina, respectively. In Homecoming, Voigt introduces the four Tillerman children: thirteen-year-old Dicey and her three younger siblings, James, Maybeth, and Sammy. Living in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the family is in a desperate state that is only worsened when their mother loses her job at the supermarket. Deciding to take the children to live with their Aunt Cilla in Connecticut, their mother disappears along the way, leaving the children to fend for themselves and find their own home. Essentially a road novel, the book traces the children's difficult journey, much of which traces Voigt's own path through Massachusetts, Connecticut, and rural Maryland. While the story has a happy ending—with the Tillerman kids breaking through the emotional wall their grandmother Abigail had put up, thus enabling them to live permanently with her—it proves to be just a smaller step along the way towards exploring larger emotional pathways. The other books similarly chart such breakthroughs: Dicey's Song details Dicey's farewell to her dying mother in a state hospital whereas Sons from Afar deals with the younger boys' reconciliation with the absence of their father from their lives. Even Seventeen against the Dealer, which proffers to present a resolution of sorts, is incomplete, suggesting that emotional resolution is an ongoing process, taken in steps throughout life.
Voigt's other novels are similarly questioning of the roles of family, place, and love in a child's emotional maturation. Despite utilizing a broad variety of genres, including mystery in The Vandemark Mummy (1991) and The Callender Papers, historical fiction in Tree by Leaf (1988) and David and Jonathan (1992), and historical romance in "The Kingdom" series, Voigt is nonetheless able to connect larger themes of absentee parents, personal loyalty, and independence within each genre's particular frameworks without undermining story cohesiveness. Indeed, Voigt often borrows from classic archetypes, using mythological antecedents to outline storylines and recall the great works of literature. Critics have suggested Odyssean overtones in the journey of Dicey and her siblings in Homecoming, with Gloria Jameson recalling Promethean and Oedipal patterns in other works of the "Tillerman" series. Voigt also regularly infuses her works with the words of the great poets—lines from Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem," A. E. Housman's "To An Athlete Dying Young," and the verses of Sappho inspire the protagonists of Homecoming, The Runner, and The Vandemark Mummy, respectively. This interest in explorations of divergent pathways is further examined in her historical romance series, "The Kingdom." Set within an alternate medieval universe, the series blends fantasy and romance genres with feminist perspectives. Each book traces the footsteps of a juvenile protagonist as she frees herself from the established conventions of a fixed society to trail-blaze new mindsets that ultimately enable her personal happiness. With a complex genealogical map interconnecting the characters, the books are set over the space of decades and feature characters with names evolved from that of the first story's original swashbuckling heroine, Burl. Three of the novels—Jackaroo (1985), On Fortune's Wheel (1990), and Elske (1999)—utilize the adolescent female narratives of Burl, Birle, and Elske to demonstrate their evolution from naïve, unquestioning girls to that of independent women with markedly feminist views of society. While The Wings of a Falcon (1993) is principally the story of an adolescent boy, it nonetheless maintains the series' expression of transient roles in an oppressive social structure. Distinct from Voigt's other works, "The Kingdom" books highlight the potential power of women within even a traditional medieval society, where, by story's end, the female protagonists are able to greet men on their own terms and where value is found in work, intelligence, and fortitude rather than in the shadow of a man. While the books are atypical for Voigt in their depictions of violence, death, and sexual undertones, nonetheless, their questioning spirit recalls aspects of the "Tillerman Family" series as well as much of Voigt's larger canon for children.
In her twenty-five year career, Voigt has been the recipient of an impressive list of accolades, including her presentation with both the Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor citations. In addition to those honors, The Callender Papers won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best juvenile mystery, Homecoming was a finalist for an American Book Award, and, in 1989, she was presented with the ALAN Award for her contributions to adolescent literature. The "Tillerman Family" series has remained her best known and most critically lauded series of books; Victor Watson has asserted that much of the series' success lies in Voigt's unique narrative patterns which avoid the formulaic pitfalls of adolescent literature. As such, he has argued, the series "undoubtedly represents characters who mature as their lives proceed, but the usual authorial ways of doing this are stubbornly avoided and the clichés of fictional maturations challenged at every point." Further discussing the "Tillerman" series, Jaime Hylton has suggested that Voigt's textual strength descends from, in part, a "richness to her work that transcends topical stories with teen-oriented, identity-focused themes." Similarly, Rosanne Donahue has hailed the "wide variety of images and symbols [Voigt] uses can turn a realistic, everyday happening into something new and wonderful." Susan Patron has complimented Voigt's emotional expressions of life in Tree by Leaf, contending that, "[t]his powerful novel, which sometimes gives the illusion that time is unfolding in the story almost at the rate of real time, reaffirms the redeeming power of love in the face of brutality and hardship." Additionally, Suzanne Elizabeth Reid has contended that Voigt's "The Kingdom" novels "are modern in their sensitivity toward questions of equity, while they realistically reflect the physical hardships and the emotional and intellectual constraints of pre-industrial life."
"Tillerman Family" Series
Homecoming (young adult novel) 1981
Dicey's Song (young adult novel) 1982
A Solitary Blue (young adult novel) 1983
The Runner (young adult novel) 1985
Come a Stranger (young adult novel) 1986
Sons from Afar (young adult novel) 1987
Seventeen against the Dealer (young adult novel) 1989
"The Kingdom" Series
Jackaroo (young adult novel) 1985
On Fortune's Wheel (young adult novel) 1990
The Wings of a Falcon (young adult novel) 1993
Elske (young adult novel) 1999
"Bad Girls" Series
The Bad Girls (juvenile novel) 1996
Bad, Badder, Baddest (juvenile novel) 1997
It's Not Easy Being Bad (juvenile novel) 2000
Bad Girls in Love (juvenile novel) 2002
Bad Girls, Bad Girls: Whatcha Gonna Do? (juvenile novel) 2006
Other Young Adult Novels
Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers (young adult novel) 1982
The Callender Papers (young adult novel) 1983
Building Blocks (young adult novel) 1984
Izzy, Willy-Nilly (young adult novel) 1986
Tree by Leaf (young adult novel) 1988
The Vandemark Mummy (young adult novel) 1991
David and Jonathan (young adult novel) 1992
Orfe (young adult novel) 1992
When She Hollers (young adult novel) 1994
Stories about Rosie [illustrated by Dennis Kendrick] (picture book) 1986
Shore Writers' Sampler II [editor; with David Bergman] (short stories and poetry) 1988
Glass Mountain (novel) 1991
The Rosie Stories [illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith] (picture book) 2003
Angus and Sadie [illustrated by Tom Leigh] (picture book) 2005
Suzanne Elizabeth Reid (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Reid, Suzanne Elizabeth. "Heroic Ventures." In Presenting Cynthia Voigt, pp. 62-79. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
[In the following essay, Reid examines three of Voigt's interrelated works of medieval historical romance, Jackaroo, On Fortune's Wheel, and The Wings of a Falcon, noting their mutual advocacies of cooperation, independence, and loyalty.]
Voigt's trilogy of historical romances, Jackaroo, On Fortune's Wheel, and The Wings of a Falcon, are written in the traditional heroic manner. Gwyn plays the "swashbuckling female,"1 in a fast-paced tale of a well-meaning young girl who rides as Jackaroo to help the poor. Birle mixes her fortune with that of her romantic ideal, the handsome prince Orien, until she too attains royal status and power. Griff and Oriel escape from absolute tyranny and brutal conditions and finally become contenders for the title of Earl. In all three, the protagonists stride out to shape their destinies, seeking power in a world where most are disempowered and encountering life-threatening dangers with courage and intelligence. In their quest for heroic power, each is supported by a loyal friend who shares their adventures and helps further their quest for power. It is the faithful devotion of these companions that mitigates the accidents of fortune's wheel and provides a source of wisdom, advice, and comfort. Voigt's protagonists mature as they recognize the limitations of seeking power alone and learn the value of sharing their lives with others.
These three interrelated novels are set in a medieval feudal era before photography, painting, and even writing could record the daily events and scenery that shaped the development of our modern culture. Voigt writes from within the minds of her central characters, chronicling their reactions to the events and people they meet and examining the formation of their motivations; the reader vicariously feels their fear, knows their discomforts, and realizes the extent of their courage and commitment to their friends. The history Voigt has imagined occurs in a northern European land bounded by snowy mountains and deep forests with rocky harbors toward the south. The language sounds Scandinavian, more like Old English than modern German, and the people value obedience, justice, and hard work. Most are peasants who eat the turnips, onions, and potatoes they grow in summer, the meat and milk of goats, and the fish they catch in the rivers flowing from the mountains into their valleys. They dress in hooded clothes of woven wool and leather, unless they are gentlefolk, who sometimes dress in silk. Voigt vividly depicts the "limited diet, the limited worldview, the chasm between lords and common folk [as well as] the joyful release of a feast day."2 Voigt's heroes in this medieval world, having discovered an escape from the routines dictated by their social environment, practice extraordinary courage and intelligence to win the right to make their own choices. In each case, the protagonist hero finds that his or her destiny is linked to the generosity of a deeply loyal friend who shares the risks as well as the excitement of the hero's path toward a life of greater freedom.
The people in the Kingdom, where this trilogy begins, are governed by a monarch who names two earls. Hildebrand rules the foothills at the northern border of the kingdom under the sign of the Bear, and the Earl of Sutherland the southern forests under the sign of the Falcon. Each earl is served by three lords whose bailiffs collect tithes and taxes to support the soldiers who keep the forests free of thieves and marauders.
This novel [Jackaroo ] begins at a time when food is scarce and the forests are unsafe. Several sons vie for the title of the Earl of Sutherland, and his lords and their bailiffs have become unruly and greedy because of the confusion that surrounds their leader. Every fortnight the peasants wait like cattle in the Doling Room to receive a basket of food to keep them alive during the winter. Ashamed and angered by the cloak of fear in which the other women huddle, Gwyn, the Innkeeper's daughter, tries to alleviate that fear by helping those less fortunate. "Evil would be done, that was the nature of the world; that was bearable if good could also be done."3 Though her first efforts seem discouragingly ineffectual, fate soon gives her the means to practice a more dramatic heroism.
When she and Burl, her father's servant, are asked to lead a lordly map-maker and his young son away from the village to survey the outlying lands, they are separated by a winter storm. Snowbound in a remote cottage, she cares for the young Lordling Gaderian, and he, bored into breaking the conventions that keep a lord from talking to his people except to announce and to order, reveals his identity: his father is Earl of Sutherland and he is heir to the title. Gaderian and Gwyn trade stories about their families and customs, teaching each other about the differences between the lords and the common people. He also teaches her to read and write, illicit skills for a commoner. While cleaning out a closet of the cottage, Gwyn finds the blue silk costume, the high leather boots, and the plumed hat and mask of the mythical Jackaroo, a secret she keeps to herself. This legendary outlaw, who like Robin Hood challenged the rich and the powerful and promoted the cause of the poor, avoided capture by using the mask, the costume, and the loyalty of the people, honoring the hero who gave them hope and self-respect. "Jackaroo could fight as a trained soldier…. He could ride a horse like a Lord: and he had the knowledge of letters which only the Lords held" (26). The rumors had some seed of truth, and this knowledge gives Gwyn courage.
When Gwyn and the Lordling return to the inn, she runs ahead to greet her family. She has cared for Gaderian well, keeping him warm and fed and soothing his terrifying nightmares, but now he is not with her, still playing the game of hide-and-seek the two had started on the long walk back. Assuming that his heir has come to harm, the Earl of Sutherland draws his sword and holds it to Gwyn's throat. Fear silences her and also her parents, who do nothing to save her from certain death. Only Burl speaks up on her behalf, just as Gaderian runs from his hiding place, turning his father's threat into apology. But Gwyn has learned how alone and vulnerable she is; her family has failed to come to her rescue, and she discounts the intervention of Burl, who is only a servant. The lord rewards both her and Burl for their services with purses of twenty gold coins and a promise of his loyalty, but this boon does not assuage her bitterness. Even more than before, she feels estranged from the social conventions that allow the rich lords to oppress the commoners. She decides that she will wear a mask of obedience and compliance, but will not submit in spirit. Soon after, when her father refuses to help the Fiddler, who is too poor to pay the newly established tax, Gwyn returns secretly to the cabin and, donning the costume of Jackaroo, walks out to the Fiddler's cabin and gives him one of her coins. The deed gives her the pleasure of seeing his relief and of hearing him tell the story of Jackaroo's generosity at the inn.
At the annual spring fair, Gwyn feels that she alone notices the misery underlying the celebration and questions the injustices of her feudal society. Seeing the body of a man hanged for his quick temper, she decides that "if there was one of these young men who also saw the hanged man, then that one she might take" (181). But she does not hear any man speak of it. She tells her father to announce at the fair that she will not marry, preferring the difficult life of a single woman to the subordination of her work to a husband.
Again she rides as Jackaroo, donating another of her coins to the poverty-stricken Am and then rescuing and delivering an orphaned infant to her sister who grieves the death of her first son. Dressed up as Jackaroo, she feels powerful: "in the disguise, she was free to do what she really wanted to do, much freer than was Gwyn, the Innkeeper's daughter" (196). When her father offers her a chance to reconsider marriage, she refuses: "She had made her choice and would abide by it. She had put on Jackaroo's mask and worn his clothes. She had become him and he had become her…. Others might try to impose their ways on her, but now they could not move her any more than the winds" (216). Encouraged by the steel in her voice, her father offers to make her heir to the Inn, but she refuses this as well. She realizes, with a start, that in defying convention to name a daughter as heir, her father is indicating great respect for her abilities and character.
But even in the guise of Jackaroo, her strength is limited. When she gives Am gold to pay his taxes, his boasting at the tavern about his newfound wealth, enormously exaggerated, instigates a violent robbery. Gwyn still does not have the power to overturn injustice, "because ride as she might, all the days and nights of her life, she could never do all that might be done. The Kingdom was too large" (213).
Moreover, as she assumes the traditionally heroic qualities of the mask she wears, Gwyn is losing her own identity. What started as deeds of empathy and caring now turn to a desire for vengeance toward the three thieves who have robbed and killed defenseless villagers. She uses the power of Jackaroo's persona to force the earl's proud steward to find and punish these men, taking his ring as a pledge, promising to return it when the thieves have been brought to justice. When her Uncle Win, who had also ridden as Jackaroo and who was about to be hanged as an outlaw, warns her, "what changes putting on the mask had begun, I had myself finished" (233), she recognizes the truth for herself. Her life is no longer her own: "Jackaroo rode outside of the law and that was why the Lords wanted to take him. The law could not hold Jackaroo. He would do what he wanted and that made him an outlaw. She hadn't chosen that, she had only chosen to do what good she could, for the people…. She had not known what she was choosing" (234). It is too late to escape. The steward appears in public with the three thieves he has caught, hoping to catch the man who rides as Jackaroo as he fulfills his pledge. Gwyn, invisible to him in her usual female garb, returns the ring by tossing it to his feet from the crowd. Embarrassed and confused, the steward accuses Cam, who is standing near Gwyn and whose foolish, scornful smirk makes him appear guilty.
Shocked at her own growing boldness and at the consequences of her actions, which increasingly endanger the people around her, Gwyn nevertheless rides again as Jackaroo to rescue Cam, whom she had once admired but now sees as weak. Attacked by soldiers waiting to capture the rebellious Jackaroo, her leg is badly slashed and she barely manages to crawl to a hiding place. Again Burl, whose gentle demeanor and lowly status have made him invisible to her, rescues her as in several previous incidents in the novel. By taking on the romantic and proud role of Jackaroo, Gwyn has lost the chance to inherit the Inn and even her privileged role as Innkeeper's daughter.
Crippled by her injury and with no public identity nor viable social role, Gwyn tries to imagine ways to survive independently. Burl encourages her to use her mind: "You're not a foolish girl, Gwyn; you've got a good head, better than most. Use it" (268). Finally she is rescued by the timely appearance of the young lord, who, reading her written message, convinces his father to let her travel with Burl under royal protection. In gratitude for Burl's care during the snowstorm and the quiet loyalty he has demonstrated since, the earl presents him with a farm and his freedom. Burl offers to marry Gwyn and she, finally recognizing his kind concern for others and gentle strength, gratefully agrees. They will use their knowledge and skills to establish an inn Gwyn has already named The Falcon's Wing. "But," warns Burl, "there will be no more Jackarooing about for you, lass" (287), and she, realizing how close she had come to death and defeat, agrees.
In this novel, Voigt creates a character who does not like the choices her society offers her: "Her life did not belong to her…. Were she to wed, her life would belong to the man she married. Were she to say no, her labor would belong to Tad [her younger brother] at the Inn, and she would become the Inn-keeper's unmarried daughter, until she was too cumbersome or too old to work there" (96). Gwyn takes on the costume of the male Jackaroo so she can have the power to make her own choice, a power usually available only to a man. Is she "too blatantly symbolic of feminism in an era when women were really downtrodden,"4 or is she merely using what fate provides to try to improve the world? She finds that men, lords, and even the legendary Jackaroo serve others "within the turning of [fortune's] wheel" (249), which limits them in their choices. What suits Gwyn is not taking on another identity, nor flaunting her power from outside the law, nor living autonomously unfettered by family; what suits her is to fulfill her own identity in partnership with a man who is equally strong and independent, and equally caring too. What has made her heroic is her courageous attempt to care for others and her recognition, finally, of the quiet heroism of Burl, the servant who has continually supported her.
Few readers are likely "to be astonished at this late blooming love affair,"5 for Burl has kept her secrets, guarded her steps, and shared her sympathies. He is, in fact, the man whom she imagined she could marry at the Spring Fair, for he too had noted the injustices underlying the superficial gaiety. It is the discretion and kindness of Burl and Gwyn to the Earl of Sutherland and his son, rather than Jackaroo's impetuous forays, that have earned them an Inn at the southern edge of the Kingdom, where both can live and work free from the rivalries of the lords and their bailiffs. Critics generally have reacted well to this novel, appreciating the spirited courage of Gwyn and the steady gentleness of Burl.
On Fortune's Wheel (1990)
A generation later, Birle, "feisty and free-spirited like her grandmother,"6 Gwyn, serves at the Inn [in On Fortune's Wheel ]. But while Gwyn wanted power to ameliorate injustices toward the poor and scorned to give the power of her work to a husband, Birle has attempted to use marriage to escape work and the poverty of her own family. She has promised to marry Muir, a rough-mannered huntsman who called her pretty and proposed to her. While Gwyn seeks romantic adventures to empower her, Birle pursues the Cinderella fantasy of escaping through romantic love. Like Gwyn, Birle precipitously grabs the first opportunity fate offers; she follows an intruder who is stealing her father's boat. When she faces the thief for the first time in daylight and sees "his smile [light] up the morning as the rising sun does …, Birle thought she understood everything about her self that she had never understood before."7 She is in love, and happy to follow this lordly stranger to wherever he will lead.
But Orien has no idea where he is going. The eldest son and heir of the present Earl of Sutherland, he is the grandson of Gaderian, who ruled conscientiously for the good of the people, a sensitivity garnered from his long talks with Gwyn during their snowbound time in the cottage. Since Gaderian has grown old and Orien's father has just been murdered, Orien is fleeing the kingdom because he fears the political unrest that will follow and because he knows that the land will be better served by his younger brother, Gladaegal, a stronger man than he and more suitable to protect the people.
With Birle, Orien travels down the river beyond the safety of the Kingdom to the seaport, where law is merely the whim of the strongest army. Birle's knowledge of the river and the woods guides the first part of their journey, and her experience with butchering enables her to kill a dog that attacks them. When a storm drives them past the port and rough waves hurl them onto a rocky beach surrounded by unsurmountable cliffs, they are trapped without food or water for eight days. Like Gwyn and Gaderian, who learned about each other when they were snowbound, Orien and Birle trade information about their respective lives, Birle explaining how the peasants survive and Orien the expectations of court life. Their exchange engenders a mutual respect for the complexity of living that underlies the customs of both peasant and lord. On the face of a rock cliff, Orien carves their names, misspelling Birle as Beryl and neglecting to finish the "n" on his own name, inadvertently providing a name for Voigt's next medieval hero in The Wings of a Falcon and thus linking himself to a future Earl of Sutherland.
After eight days the two are rescued by slave traders. Now Orien looks nothing like a lord, the shipwreck having reduced him to a shaggy skeleton without any evidence of his birthright. As a young woman, Birle has more value to the pirates. Orien tries to argue them out of danger, but it is Birle's kindness to the giant Yul that saves them from further harm.
Birle and Yul have the good fortune to be sold to Joaquim, a scholar who cares more about recording his knowledge of herbs than about immediate power and authority, and who allows them to roam the city with relative freedom. Birle's ability to read and write, learned secretly and illicitly from her grandparents and originally feared by her as burdensome knowledge, now gives her access to useful information and thus the ability to survive. As Joaquim's amanuensis, she copies formulas and alchemy books to fulfill the orders of his brother, the all-powerful Corbel, and she catalogs herbs to preserve her master's knowledge. Though separated from her beloved Orien and enslaved, Birle finds the neverending toil a relief rather than a burden: "Work had the power to distract, and distraction eased her heart" (166); "Work was a way of forgetting" (170). As she becomes more adept at identifying the herbs and writing down her newfound knowledge, the girl who had run away from the endless cycle of work-filled days at the Inn now begins to enjoy "the pleasure of a task her hands had done, and done well" (173). She begins to take pride in her accomplishments, even if they are done at the behest of a master who owns her: "As she sat at the table, carefully forming the letters and the lines of words, she could feel her spirit grow quiet. Aye, and why shouldn't she be proud of the pages she had written so flawlessly" (184).
While she learns the worth of work, she loses the clarity of her romantic attachment to Orien, whose enslavement has not been easy on him. She sees him in the market, cowed and disheveled.
The joy of seeing Orien was a pain as sharp and bright as a knife. How could he have allowed himself to become what she had seen? It was all luck, she knew, and she knew also that her own luck had been good. But that didn't ease her. She wished she could forget the slave she had seen, and remember only the young Lord she had followed…. Hadn't he, she asked herself angrily, run away rather than be what he must be? He ought to have stayed where he was, to be Earl.
Not until she is in danger herself does she fully understand "how many such moments had bowed him down … [and that] it was a wonderful thing that he could still lift his head to smile at her, helpless across a crowd of people" (178). To survive and be able to make choices, not only are work and skill necessary, but also the courage that comes from having a loyal friend. Orien can survive his unlucky turn of "fortune's wheel" because he sustains the hope that Birle will be able to help him.
Against almost impossible odds, Orien escapes from the mines where he has been branded and starved, and appears in Joaquim's backyard. Meanwhile, Joaquim prepares to flee the city, which is being invaded by the father of Celinde, a ten-year-old princess whom Corbel, the city's ruler, has stolen to be his bride and to legitimize his reign. In the ensuing confusion, Birle and Yul escape to the forest with the nearly dead Orien, heading north, back toward the Kingdom on the other side of the mountains. But first they are captured by Damall, a showman who will figure prominently in Voigt's next tale of adventure. Damall agrees to allow Birle and Orien to continue their journey if the giant Yul will work for him until one of them returns with a ransom.
Birle settles with Orien in a secluded glade, where she nurses him back to health. During this idyllic time the gentle summer sustains them, and their isolation gives them the peace to know each other again. When Orien asks Birle to lie with him as wife, she reminds him of their social inequality. But he reverses the meaning of her words to imply that she has been the "superior" despite his noble status: "Aye, there is, and ever has been. You gave me your heart and I gave you nothing in return, so now I give you mine—and we are equal." Birle sees in him "the hunger she had learned to fear" from other men, "but it was also longing … and she was not surprised to find in herself a hunger that matched his" (240-41). They lie together as man and woman in a love that is mature because they are equally committed to each other and equally experienced in knowledge of the ways that life can be hard. Now Orien knows what it is to have one's work be owned by someone else, and Birle knows the pleasure of working with her mind.
When they finally reach the Kingdom, where Orien is recognized as the next Earl, Birle lives in luxury far beyond what she had ever dreamed about as a child. She enjoys material wealth and the love of her handsome lord, and awaits the birth of their child, but she is not content. She has no work. Birle explains her disquietude to the old earl and his lady: "Among the people, a man and his wife are both necessary to the well-being of the house. I can't change myself into a Lady … who live[s] apart, even wife from husband" (264-65). Reluctantly understanding her desire to choose how she and her child will spend their days, they grant her permission to leave the castle and provide her with a farm.
Birle leaves without telling Orien and establishes herself on the land with the help of only her stepmother, Nan, who still cannot understand Birle's desire for independence. Birle knows that she can work without a man's help and that she can think for herself. Yet, when her child is born, she wants to give her "from Orien, his way of doubting, to ask questions when everyone said something must be so" (278), a habit of questioning that is now her way too.
On Fortune's Wheel is a feminist romance, a feminist wish-fulfillment. At the outset Birle is rescued by a handsome prince from a stepmother who treats her like a servant and a father too distant and weak to care. She soon finds that even the handsome Orien cannot protect her from the harsher evils of the wider world. She must learn to rescue herself, not with physical beauty but with strength and skill and courage. In the end she has it all on her own terms. Birle, even more than Gwyn or Dicey, embodies the feminist who wants to do her own work as well as to love. Having outgrown her adolescent dreams of a life without labor, Birle has her own farm and the freedom to choose her own work. But this is also a romance where hero and heroine are reunited. Orien has followed her and wants to live with her, earning his living as a puppeteer, telling stories to the village-folk.
Orien stood before her with their life in his hands to give her, and Birle—as contrary as Nan said—could only think of herself. What of her own life? What of her own work? … Must she give that up? Birle could have laughed at herself. She had gone beyond a place where the world could tell her must. Aye, and they both had. Whatever Orien's work, she would grow the herbs and prepare the medicines, she would be herself and his wife too, and the mother to Lyss and whatever other children they had. She would be each of these, in the same way that Orien would be each of his puppets…. Her life was in her own hands.
Orien, a traditional hero figure, could not have survived without the knowledge and skill of Birle. Now, committed to a life that will allow both him and Birle to choose their own work, he gives up the power that is legally his because he knows his brother Gladaegal will rule with more skill. And loyal to the promise they have made to Yul, he has traveled back to the city below the Kingdom and bought him back from Damall.
Several critics praise this adventure for its drama and its realistic depiction of slavery's degradation.8 But the critic Victor Watson believes that Dicey, for one, would not have the patience to drag though this lengthy saga, which hints at political unrest and war but never explains its causes.9 Another critic, Roger Sutton, sees no virtue in Orien but his bellflower eyes: "Dicey would have drowned him."10 But Voigt raises significant questions about the complexity of power, both personal and political, that she wants the reader to ponder rather than answer herself, and Orien is a real human being who is thoughtful enough to know that the privilege of political power is bought with terrible responsibilities; he knows that he himself does not have the personal strength to handle power well. Indeed, the third historical fantasy of this series focuses on the differences between power attained through fear and power maintained by mutual respect and cooperation. Heroes engender their reputation and power by practicing courage, but they earn lasting respect by demonstrating wisdom and respect for others as well.
The Wings of a Falcon (1993)
Orien has ransomed Yul from Damall for three beryl signets, each emblazoned with the falcon that signi- fies the house of Sutherland. Voigt's third novel of this loosely connected series implies that Damall bought a small island with two of the beryls and began a dynasty of his own, where he raises boys from childhood and, at maturity, sells them back to the slave market. By the time of The Wings of a Falcon, the sixth Damall is a sadistic tyrant who amuses himself by whipping the boys and hearing them scream. The protagonist of this novel arrives at the Damall's Island without even his name, knowing only "that this man would know how to hurt him." His only power is to keep his fear secret. The boy squares his shoulders and decides to be as "strong as stone."11 But he is afraid of the water and of the day when, like all the other boys, he would be dropped from a boat to swim back to shore if he could, or to drown if he could not. Attracted by the determination of this young boy, Griff, another of the Damall's boys, secretly teaches him to swim. The boy becomes a favorite of the others because he laughs and does everything the best: he runs the fastest, swims the farthest, and is handiest with the boats. He becomes the Damall's favorite. Nikol, jealous, tries to cross him whenever he can; he steals the dagger that the Damall has given him. On the other hand, Griff becomes his friend, bathing his wounds and teaching him what he knows of the island's history. The boy, sensing the danger of Nikol's jealousy, tries to protect Griff by keeping their friendship a secret. When the Damall names this nameless boy to be the seventh Damall, making his heart swell with pride and hope, he does not tell even Griff; when the Damall changes his mind and promises to name Nikol, the boy hardens again: "His heart was a stone fist" (33).
When Nikol accuses Griff of poisoning the stew that has made them all sick, the sixth Damall asks the boy to decide if Nikol is right in his accusation. This is a test, and the prize is the power that has made his heart swell, beyond its usual stone center: "He didn't like his choices…. If he denied his own belief in Griff, then he would have purchased his right to rule the island by the betrayal of the one person in the world he trusted. If he acted as he believed, then he would lose his inheritance" (40). He chooses to support Griff; Nikol attacks him, and the two fight to be named the seventh Damall. Nikol loses, yet the seventh Damall declines to kill him. He knows it is a mistake, but, just as he hates the whipping boxes, he does not want to kill. He is not afraid, "but what kind of a life was it when you had to kill somebody to keep the place that had been awarded to you? What kind of a world was it where in order to be on top you had to push others under?" (80). In order to survive, he would have to see things as they really are, clearly and coldly without the soft edges of misplaced trust or hope. But, despite the harshness and distrust he has learned to associate with power, he chooses not to kill.
Choosing to give up his title rather than exercise the cruelty necessary to hold it, the seventh Damall sails from the island, taking only his friend Griff. He finds a cliff with the name Oriel on it and takes it for his own; the name Beryl, chiseled beside it, seems to portend some connection to the name, for he wears the Damall's last beryl in a band wound around his waist. Oriel and Griff sail to the mainland, where they find work together on a farm kept prosperous by the production of salt. There they are content, working together for two years and flirting with Tamara, the Saltweller's daughter. This peaceful life suddenly ends when the savage Wolfers swoop down on the farm. Oriel and Griff try to stave off the attackers, giving Tamara time to escape. Had the two, faster than the young girl, run without concern for her, they might have escaped capture. But when Orien expresses bitterness at his decision, Griff assures him that it was a better choice to save the girl and perhaps the people she warned, even at the expense of their own freedom. Oriel discovers "that he desired Griff's good opinion, and hoped to keep it…. Griff was like his own hand—and when Griff disagreed with him, Oriel felt as if his own hand, even while it obeyed his wishes, had desires of its own, or ideas of its own. It was like watching his own hand walk away free, on its five fingers, and knowing that he had kept it bound to his wrist to serve his own convenience…. He had used Griff ill. But he had saved Griff too" (219-20). Oriel is beginning to appreciate Griff, not just for his loyalty but for his moral wisdom.
The Wolfers are ruthless raiders, killing without hesitation for convenience and loot, showing scorn for any sign of cowardice. Remembering his earlier training, Oriel turns himself to ice, eventually winning the grudging respect of Rulgh, the Wolfer's captain. Oriel can keep himself ice "against the heat of fires, the heat of blood, the heat of fear and fighting" (226), but he worries about Griff. Rulgh must never know "how closely Oriel's strength was bound to Griff's needs" (227), for that would make them both vulnerable to the man who would cruelly probe that weak spot, just to exercise his power. Without Griff, Oriel might become a Wolfer; Oriel realizes that he could enjoy the "Wolfer way of blade and fist and fire" (243) if Griff did not remind him of a gentler way of life. Oriel admires the fearlessness of the Wolfers, their single-minded pursuit of their goal, and even their carelessness of comfort and of life. But the bond to Griff is stronger.
An avalanche on the mountain to the North toward the Kingdom provides their escape from the Wolfers. Suddenly, after a year, they are free again. They make their way to a small farm at the edge of the Kingdom, the home of a hospitable young woman named Beryl. She is the granddaughter of Orien, who has taught her to work the puppets he has made, and she recognizes the special strength of this young man who bears with him a beryl with the sign of the Falcon on it. After giving her heart to Oriel and taking him to her bed, she tells him the significance of the signet. Now that the Kingdom is searching for a new earl, this beryl seems a sign, just as did the name carved next to Oriel and just as does the name of the young woman. "It seemed to him that his destiny had always been waiting for him…. He need only to go boldly forward" (297) and seize the power. Oriel seems to be called forth into another heroic adventure, one that takes him away from Beryl, who has given him her heart.
The three of them devise a plan to present him before the king and have him sponsored as contestant for the hand of Merlis, daughter of the Earl of Sutherland, and for the title. The plan is successful until Oriel discovers that the tourney must result in the death of one contender. Griff suggests that without death, former contenders can become friends. "I cannot enter such a contest," decides Oriel. "You fear dying?" asks one of the lords. "No," Oriel answers, "I fear killing" (333). The young boy who turned his heart to stone to become the seventh Damall has learned to value companionship and life more than power. Griff's friendship, Tamara's devotion, and Beryl's love have given him real strength, tempering the fear that made him seem hard and cruel to those he dared not protect. Impressed by Oriel's courage, the king and lords reconsider the rule and change their minds. There will be no killing and the king will sponsor Oriel.
Oriel desires the heart of Merlis as well as her hand, but she scorns this stranger who might win power over them all. She has given her heart to Tintage, whose suffering under the heavy hand of his father, Yaegar, has made his heart tender. Caught up in the quest for the power of the earlship, Oriel seems to have forgotten how much he cared for Beryl, who turns out to be the real jewel of the kingdom. Saddened at Merlis's coldness, Oriel knows that "her perfect lover would win the prize, and then lay it at the lady's feet. He would give to her the governance of her lands, and of her own heart … even though he was the most worthy." And he realizes that he is not that perfect lover. "He would win her, he would take her, willing or no" (382). Although he will not kill, the competitiveness that has been fostered so long by fear is too strong. He must win, must gain the coveted title. And so he is named Earl of Sutherland by the king.
But as Merlis puts her hand into his, as she must do by law, Oriel sees the fear and anger in her face, "like a woman who looks upon her fate with Wolfers" (390). He has won the title, but he cannot bear to cause the same despair that he himself has finally escaped; he opens his mouth to "give her life into her own holding" (390). But in that instant, he is mortally stabbed in the back by Tintage. It is the desperate act of a man whose love is stronger than his courage. Oriel has time only to name Griff as his successor.
Devastated at the loss of his friend, Griff is unwilling to rule, afraid of the dangers Oriel seemed to face without fear, uncertain of the decisions Oriel seemed to make without hesitation. However, for the sake of Oriel and his memory, he forges ahead, seeking the other lords' advice and winning their respect for his own courage as well as for his loyalty to Oriel. Griff's belief in cooperative rule inspires him to set a new precedent in government: an advisory council who will rule by consensus. He wins the heart of Beryl, too, by caring for the child she carries, Oriel's child, for whom Griff will preserve the title. "And Griff was what Oriel had shown him how to be, and needed him to be, and saved his life to be. Like Beryl, who was his lady, Griff carried on his breast the medallion that marked the house of the Earls Sutherland" (467). With the inordinate strength that mutual loyalty provides, this partnership of Oriel and Griff has won them freedom from tyranny and the power to begin a new kind of government.
The power of fear and courage is strong, but the power of partnership is often more effective. Gwyn tries to right the wrongs of her society alone in secret, but she discovers that her deeds increasingly implicate others in a web that grows more complicated with each deed; she can not succeed without the help of Burl and the earl. Orien sets off on a journey alone; if Birle had not insisted on accompanying him, he could never have survived. Oriel and Griff succeed because, understanding the motivations of the people they must serve, they are able to earn their respect and change the rules of power games to their own advantage. Voigt's heroes learn that success depends as much on mutual cooperation as on individual strength, and as much on loyalty as on courage.
In addition to their common geography and political history, these three novels are linked by patterns of imagery. Voigt alludes to the strength of trees in the three books to characterize her male heroes. In Jackaroo, to Gwyn, Burl feels "as sturdy and deeply rooted as a tree" (248). From these roots grows Birle, the hero of On Fortune's Wheel, who thinks that Orien moves "with the grace of a young tree in a high wind …, straight and strong as a tree" (35). In Voigt's third book of the series, while Oriel makes himself like stone to fight his fear, "Griff had the bending strength of a sapling" (7) and hair "the color of dry leaves in fall" (17).
The more dominant image is that of the beryl which signifies the rule of the Earl of Sutherland. In medieval lapidaries, the beryl protects against peril and defeat, quickening a man's intelligence; it also can be made into a potion that cures diseases of the eyes. The Kyranides, a compendium of medieval medical lore, advises that the beryl be engraved with a crow, a crab, and a cypress.12 Voigt ennobles the crow by changing it into a falcon, and names the hero of her third book Griff, a name loosely related to the German word for "claw." In Jackaroo, the name "Burl," the servant who protects Gwyn and sees the truth behind her masks, refers to the strong and knotted part of wood as well as serving as a rough homonym for the jewel. His name is echoed in his granddaughter Birle, who protects Orien, the nominal Earl of Sutherland in On Fortune's Wheel. In The Wings of a Falcon the jewel itself is worn as an amulet by Oriel, and its name has been given to Beryl, the mother of Oriel's child, the future Earl of Sutherland. In all three books, Voigt gives the name to a character who acts both as a protector as well as a guide, providing clear vision along the path to independence.
When Oriel enters the tourney to win the title of earl, he gives the beryl signet to the king to present to the next Earl of Sutherland and promises the mother of his child to Griff. In all three novels, the tree signifies the endurance of the family line, even in the face of peril, and the image of the beryl belongs to the character who protects his or her partner from harm and insures that the house of Sutherland will continue. Voigt's subtle use of this imagery contrasts with the straightforward movement of the plot and the blunt language of her characters.
The language of Voigt's novels reflects the directness of medieval communication, when words were few and poetic politeness was reserved for the noble, but the moral conscientiousness of the characters is modern. Voigt's heroes judge the rightness of their decisions by standards of justice and fairness. Daring to challenge the status quo, they question the rightness of tradition and custom, striving for the freedom to make their own decisions. They believe in the inherent value of all individuals, regardless of gender, class, or economic level, and they show equal respect for the ideas and possibilities of all persons. Voigt's historical romances are modern in their sensitivity toward these questions of equity, while they realistically reflect the physical hardships and the emotional and intellectual constraints of pre-industrial life. In these fantasies of long ago, Voigt imagines heroes who have courage to question, intelligence to survive, and commitment to maintain loyalty to their friends in an age where most people, peasants and nobility alike, sustain themselves with passive obedience to a customary rut, safe and same. Voigt's heroes cannot change the inevitable turns of fortune's wheels, but they do succeed in modifying their direction.
1. Mary Burns, Horn Book, March 1986, 210.
2. Patty Campbell, Wilson Library Bulletin, March 1986, 50.
3. Cynthia Voigt, Jackaroo (Atheneum, 1985), 54.
4.Publisher's Weekly, 9 August 1985, 77.
5.Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September 1985, 19.
6. Barbara Samuels, ALAN Review, Winter 1991, 24.
7. Cynthia Voigt, On Fortune's Wheel (New York: Atheneum, 1990), 22.
8. Ann Flowers, Horn Book, May 1990, 341; Susan Hepler, School Library Journal, March 1990, 242.
9. Victor Watson, Times Educational Supplement, 17 May 1991, 28.
10. Roger Sutton, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, July 1990, 276.
11. Cynthia Voigt, The Wings of a Falcon (New York: Scholastic Hardcover, 1993), 4.
Victor Watson (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Watson, Victor. "Cynthia Voigt: The Tillerman Series." In Coming of Age in Children's Literature, pp. 85-124. London, England: Continuum, 2002.
[In the following essay, Watson asserts that Voigt's seven-novel Tillerman series represents the maturation of its recurring adolescent characters in nontraditional ways.]
Series Fiction and the Growth of Character
A series of novels provides a writer with space, amplitude and extended opportunities for representing the development of character. If the protagonists are young people emerging from childhood into adulthood, one might expect maturation to be a predominant theme, providing a narrative structure and a fictional process, determined largely by key rites of passage and appropriate moments of inner revelation.
However, nothing is quite what it seems in these seven novels. The Tillerman series undoubtedly represents characters who mature as their lives proceed, but the usual authorial ways of doing this are stubbornly avoided and the clichés of fictional maturation challenged at every point.
It is salutary to consider what the novels do not deal with: there is no sex (love is there, especially between Jeff and Dicey, but characteristically undemonstrative); there is no overt interest in religious faith (except, in passing, with Mina); and there is no psychological analysis. Although the consequences of parenting are everywhere present, the narratives are pre-Freudian. This is surprising, since six of the seven novels are everywhere concerned with the consequences of absent or inadequate parents; and also because it could be argued that (certainly for many other writers) the sharpest indicators of maturation in fiction are sex, religious faith and psychological awareness, providing narrative programmes enabling an author to chart maturation into adult life. Even the more outward signs of Dicey's physical maturation are dealt with only briefly, almost perfunctorily. In fact, the narrative seems almost to be irritated by having to pay any attention at all to such self-evident facts of life: Dicey feels ‘tricked’ into having to wear a bra and ‘go around feeling like a dog with a collar on’.1 Mina Smiths' maturing body is, on the other hand, of central significance in Come a Stranger —but it is not primarily an issue of sexuality but of race. Mina can joke about her physical precociousness but, despite her laughter, her strong and highly co-ordinated body has been a problem throughout her adolescence—but only because white people see it as one.
Wolfgang Iser has pointed out that ‘the most effective literary work is one which forces the reader into a new critical awareness of his or her customary codes and expectations’.2 It is not clear what Iser means by ‘effective’ and I do not believe a reader can be ‘forced’ into anything. But his comment does provide a way of understanding Cynthia Voigt's highly complex achievement in the Tillerman novels. This series works by resisting or undermining fictional norms and challenging readers' expectations. For example, another traditional way of representing maturation is to take protagonists through their changing perceptions of their parents, often involving a sense of loss as well as a wisdom (or bitterness) gained. This theme—under the powerful influence of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye—has been especially potent in American fiction. It is rarely far from the surface in the novels of Betsy Byars and, in the work of Paul Zindel, becomes a raw adolescent angst, sometimes comic but often bitter and angry, saved only by the self-mockery of the main sufferer. But in the Tillerman series there can be no confrontation between the generations because the parents are not there. Indeed, Voigt has transformed this rather threadbare theme by making both parents into an absence—everywhere felt but nowhere known.
The series comprises seven novels, the first published in the USA in 1981 and the rest issued at roughly yearly intervals until 1989. They are not a straightforward family chronicle: the first two follow the adventures of the four Tillerman children as they seek a new home and eventually settle in it with their grandmother. The third, A Solitary Blue, introduces a new character, quite unrelated to the Tillermans until he meets Dicey about two-thirds of the way through. The Runner returns to the Tillerman family, but a generation earlier; it is an historical novel set in the 1960s. The fifth in the series moves to yet another central protagonist, Mina Smiths, though the link with the Tillermans is again eventually established when Mina befriends Dicey at school, picking up on an episode from Dicey's Song. 3Sons from Afar returns to the Tillerman family, focusing upon Dicey's younger brothers, and the last novel, Seventeen against the Dealer, completes the series by locating itself almost totally in Dicey's mind.
The sequence outwits the serial nature of series fiction. Despite the linearity of narrative, the Tillerman series is circular, expansive and inclusive. Its authorial attention circles around a particular group of people, back in time, and out into other families and communities. But Dicey remains the centre; the series begins with her and returns to her at the end.
In Homecoming (1981) the reader is placed alongside Dicey, viewing and understanding the USA through Dicey's developing perceptions. This is a road novel, in which the growth of the traveller is inseparable from the road travelled. Here, movement does not always mean progress but it does always involve meetings with strange people—eccentric, kind, wicked or violent. Dicey's maturation is not simply a matter of observing these people and learning lessons about the USA; she is forced to become the USA—capitalist, opportunistic, courageous, worried and sharp witted, a pragmatist defining her family group against the difficulties of survival. Already the attentive reader is being invited to refine popular notions of maturation: the growth of the character is inseparable from the way the community is perceived and lived in; it does not only take place within the community but on its terms. The entire Tillerman series can be seen as a sustained analysis of the effects of the ‘American Dream’ as it exerts its shaping power over the tenderest and most private parts of the human psyche.
Journeying has a special significance in the American novel and fictional groups of pioneering travellers seeking to find somewhere to settle have an honoured place in its history. The road novel becomes a novel not only of American life but also of the pioneering psyche—the willingness to travel to uncertain destinations, to tolerate arrival as an ambiguous and insecure achievement, and to expect further demands if survival is to be achieved. Homecoming is also a sailing novel—but obliquely. Dicey's understanding of herself accepts that she needs to be by the sea and that she takes great pleasure in the idea of sailing. At one point she rhapsodizes about its pleasures and speculates that ‘maybe life was like a sea, and all the people were like boats’.4 And, at the end of the novel, the fact of having a home becomes, for her, associated with repairing the boat she has found there and perhaps sailing it. But there is something odd here: sailing is for Dicey a frequent metaphor for life, providing an alternative conceptual mode to both the linear journeys by road and the fixity of having a home. And yet (apart from some dutiful in-shore fishing trips) there is no true sailing anywhere in the series. Boats and boat restoration are for her—and for Jeff in A Solitary Blue —a matter of refuge and recovery; building them, as we later learn in Seventeen against the Dealer, is problematical and dangerous. But sailing them does not happen—perhaps because it would unconsciously seem like an endorsement of the irresponsibility of the world-travelling absentee father.
The differences between road travel and sea travel frequently occupy Dicey's thoughts, but she remains puzzled and the issue remains unresolved. Readers are not allowed to believe that maturation involves a simple progression from one point along the road to a different one further on; nor are there given any straightforward answers. In the Tillerman series maturity is never an achieved state and never a straightforward binary shift. It can be manifest only in unending movement, a meaning defined in an often meaningless flux, with unpredictable outcomes and incomprehensible origins. There is no point at which a character can sit back and say: ‘I have achieved maturity.’ The grandmother is an illustration of this, and she admits it. An exception, though, is the doomed Bullet in The Runner, whose fate befalls him partly because of the time he lived in and partly because he is convinced that he has already done his maturing and the rest of the world has still to catch up.
The experience of reading the series is decisively a matter of how the reader reacts to the author's distinctive language. The style of the first novel, Homecoming, is compact and uncompromising, for the most part representing Dicey's perceptions as indistinguishable from the narrator's.
Dicey knew her sister could read and do sums, but Maybeth always sat quiet around strangers. For Maybeth, everyone in the world was a stranger, except Momma and Dicey and James and Sammy.5
Whose observation is represented in that second sentence? It is characteristic of Cynthia Voigt's unpretentious prose that this comment is both Dicey's perception (because Dicey was the subject of the preceding sentence) and the narrator's as well. It also manages (through the childlike repetition of ‘and’) to be the young Maybeth's perception too.
The distinction usually made between a closed text and an open one seems not to be applicable here. The writing is highly controlled, but the effect is to provide a relentlessly faithful account of the realities of the lives of the four children, without sentiment or mitigation. Voigt's authorial voice seems to be saying to the reader: this is realism, this is reality, we must agree to be realistic about it. And, since Dicey is the oldest and has a growing understanding of the three younger children and their predicament as a group, this perception is predominantly associated with her. Throughout the first novel there are two key pronouns, she and they, indicating two narrative polarities: the inner monologue of Dicey and the narrator's/Dicey's account of what the children do together as a group.
Homecoming is characterized by writing like this:
Maybeth and Dicey crossed the dirt road from the playground and found the path to the small campground. Another path led to a bluff overlooking the marshes. They walked without speaking through the warm morning. The only sounds were the rustling of the leaves above them and the rustling of their feet on the leafy ground. They emerged from the woods on top of a low bluff that marked the border of the marshlands. Below, the heavy grasses swayed. Narrow canals of water moved gently. The scene could have been painted in watercolours, so pale was the green of the grass, so subdued was the green of the water.6 (emphasis added)
Most of this is effective information-giving; compact, precise and vivid. The perceptions could be the objective narrator's or they could be subjectively Dicey's or—less likely—Maybeth's. But the sentence which I have italicized introduces a new and self-consciously authorial manner: both the aesthetic painterly observation and the stylized repetition (‘so pale … so subdued … ’) are clearly not part of the consciousness of either of the children. There are other examples: ‘The air was clear, clean, lucid, lying lightly upon the world that morning’7 and ‘ … wispy trees looked like weeds grown up’.8 They invariably occur in the midst of routine reportage, twitching the reader's awareness a little from the faithfully prosaic to a slightly more distanced poetic perspective.
At times, these writerly observations are there to indicate for the reader that a child's own language is never quite going to be adequate to the narrator's requirements. These are not first-person narratives. So, when we are told, for example, of Cousin Eunice's ‘silly helpless smile’9 at their first meeting, we cannot be sure whether the narrator is sharing this observation with the reader, or whether Dicey has already summed up her relative. It is more likely that observations like these work conspiratorially—the character, the narrator and the reader sharing a growing understanding as events take place and words are found for them.
Even in the first novel of the series, Voigt's language often seems to recoil from its own prosaic nature by turning unexpectedly—and with simple directness—into revelatory symbol:
Maybeth looked up from a pile of stones she was making into a long circle around herself.10
or, in this case with less simplicity, as Dicey is working in the circus tent:
More goodbyes, Dicey thought to herself, coiling up the last rope into a dark brown hoop, piling loop upon loop. ‘I am unfond of goodbyes,’ she said to herself. All of their goodbyes lay like the coiled ropes on the ground, connected and unconnected, curling silently, finished things.11
How Things Work
To read these novels is to become absorbed in processes. The Tillerman narratives are fascinated by the way things work and how things change—how a meal is prepared, how timber can be smoothed and shaped, how four children approach a house and knock on the door, how to order fresh supplies for a butcher's shop, how to fish for crabs, how people operate in groups, how groups inter-relate in cultural communities and ideologies. Nothing, however mundane or trivial, is beneath this detailed authorial attention. Always, the prose works solidly at it, capturing the actuality, the sequence of tiny interrelating events, the inter-dependence of homely phenomena or the significance of unconsidered actions, and the way past patterns impinge upon current needs.
In Sons from Afar there is so much of this kind of description that Cynthia Voigt seems almost to be deliberately risk-taking, pressing her readers into a state almost of boredom. We are given even more here than in previous novels of the multiplicity of details surrounding the protagonists. Sometimes pages of it. In the following example, Sammy is shocked to discover that James has no money:
‘Why not?’ Sammy asked. He had twenty-one dollars left of the hundred dollars he'd started off what James called their fiscal year with. They had a summer crabbing business, he and James, and Jeff helped out when he wanted to which was pretty regularly. They kept the first money they made for themselves, for a year's allowances, a hundred dollars apiece. Jeff didn't keep any, but James and Sammy did. At first, Jeff had agreed to split the earnings three ways, for the days he worked along with them, but then he'd stopped, refusing to take his share. He'd told them to put his share in a college fund, or get something they needed. Usually, Jeff did what he thought you wanted him to do, but about the money he wouldn't budge. So James and Sammy started out the summer with a hundred dollars and the rest of the profits they gave to Gram. It wasn't a fortune, but it helped. ‘You had twenty dollars after Christmas,’ Sammy reminded his brother.
‘I had to buy a glove.’12
Why does Cynthia Voigt do this? This detailed retrospective infilling of information is certainly dispensable. One reason, I believe, is her fascination with the way needs and immanent phenomena are linked, often unsatisfactorily. Another is that, in this book, the narration, with its insistently detailed minutiae, enacts the psychological condition of these two fatherless sons. In the above extract, the pragmatic and down-to-earth Sammy, trying to understand his reticent and preoccupied older brother, constructs an accurate and sensible equation with the logical outcome that James should still have twenty dollars—only to discover that he had not factored in James' obstinate need to buy a baseball glove for a game which he hates. So this detailed account is not a narrative digression, but a demonstration of how Sammy thinks. Style is both character and understanding.
But not always. The faithful accounts of mundane moments can unexpectedly shift into poetry.
Maybeth sat straight-backed at the piano, wearing an old brown sweater Gram had knitted for James years ago. Her head, curls the colour of yellow corn ripened in the sunlight, bent forward a little, and her hands moved over the piano keys. The music tumbled out, filling the room, generous. Her hands were what made the music, her hands and Mozart and the piano. James sometimes wondered how it was that Maybeth, who was so slow at everything else, even the cooking and sewing she had a natural ability for, could be so quick and sure with music.13
The history of the ‘old brown sweater’ is precisely the kind of humble detail which gives families a sense of themselves and their continuity. But what follows (italicized) are perceptions of a different order, rhapsodic and lyrical. But whose thoughts are they? They might be the appreciative James', as what follows certainly belongs to his way of working things out—the careful self-correcting is typical of him, as he acknowledges that Mozart and the musical instrument had something to do with the music played. And then the reader is told directly what ‘James wondered’ about his mysterious sister.
Cynthia Voigt has shaped for herself an authorial voice which retains the advantages of a first-person narrator without relinquishing the third-person narrator's objectivity. As I have already suggested, this works to create the sense of a three-way conspiracy, with the character, the narrator and the reader edging their way together towards understanding. Maturation takes place in this novel on these terms.
In Sons from Afar, as Sammy and James search for their father, both boys undoubtedly mature as they discover that they can survive violence and emerge from it with greater self-understanding. But the way that Voigt manages such transitions suggests a discriminating authorial caution, as if she is suspicious of the ways in which narrative grammar can seduce a writer into slickness. James at one point, for example, comes to feel that he is at last free of the obsessive need to find out about his father; he no longer believes he must go on playing baseball to prove he is not a ‘dork’; and he intends to sing in the chorus because that is what he wants to do, and because ‘it wasn't as if he was going to live for a hundred years’. In fact, he adds, nobody is guaranteed any time at all.
Figuring that—it was as if a dark shadow that had been riding round on his back all of his life had floated away. There was a dark clinging thing and he had unwrapped its fingers from his throat and tossed it back into the darkness it had come from. That wasn't exactly true, he knew, but it was the way he felt.14
The ‘dark figure’ that had been riding around on his back all his life might have appeared in any number of psychological novels of maturation or therapy—but it is characteristic of Cynthia Voigt that she (through James) draws back in the sentence I have italicized from its melodramatic evocations. She invites her reader to share with her the understanding (‘That wasn't exactly true’) that serious writers may at times need to use words which are not strictly accurate but which may, provisionally, help to clarify. The reader is being asked to contribute, to bring some understanding of the task of writing.
James becomes clearer about many muddled matters in his life. But clarification, though psychologically crucial, is syntactically peripheral. It slips into the characters' consciousnesses at unguarded moments. Understanding and revelation invariably occur at the edges of sentences or paragraphs, almost as accidental afterthoughts; or, sometimes, in a dialogue in which the speakers stumble apparently by chance upon some important perception. In this way, Sammy too becomes clearer about something which had puzzled him, and his perceptions come to him when he is crabbing with his new young assistant, Robin, engaged in ‘safe’ chat about rowing, traps and outboard motors. But Robin has family uncertainties of his own to deal with and Sammy finds himself unexpectedly discussing fathers—and then mothers too.
Sammy never talked about Momma; he almost never really thought about her; he just remembered. But floating along in the boat, he wanted to say something. ‘She played with me, she was fun. Her hair was long, and soft—it kind of shone,’ he remembered that. Remembering that hurt, but it was a good kind of pain. ‘I was pretty little when she died, but I think now,’ he thought aloud, ‘she was the kind of person who might be too gentle. You know?’ The kind of person who needed taking care of—he couldn't stop himself from thinking; and his father was the kind of man who didn't take care of things.15
The practical Sammy does rather well in this episode. He is unusually articulate—though more gets worked out in his inner speech than is expressed in actual utterances. More significantly, though, he handles the smaller boy's anxieties and inexperience with enormous tact and kindness, unconsciously demonstrating how unlike his father he has already become.
It is easier for James than for Sammy; at least, that is what Sammy thinks. ‘ … James always knew what to think because he was practically a genius, or something.’16 Voigt seems with the character of Sammy to be fascinated by the kind of mind that does not speculate, and by states of un-awareness. Shortly after the above episode, Sammy is mortified to discover that everyone is blaming him for not having noticed that Maybeth is unhappy and that his neglect has contributed to this.
Sammy had said something wrong, something awfully wrong, and Gram and James knew what, but he didn't. If they didn't tell him, how was he supposed to know? How was he supposed to guess, without being told? And then, the way they were looking at him—like he should know, like they couldn't believe he didn't know. They were blaming him now for not knowing. It made him angry, even though he maybe ought to know whatever it was he didn't.17
The graceless syntax, the unanswerable questions, and the awkward way in which sentences recoil against themselves all indicate Sammy's frustration and bafflement. When he eventually understands what it is he has failed to do, he is irritated by the cussedness of time, by the irredeemability of the past. He and Robin had been forced to throw the anchor overboard earlier, and this loss provides Sammy with a homely analogy to help him understand:
… The anchor was gone, lost. You couldn't find things you'd lost overboard. The bottom shifted, mud and sand moved constantly, covering up anything that fell in; and then, it was almost impossible to pinpoint any particular spot on the water, because there were no stable landmarks. You couldn't mark anything by a wave. A wave just moved on away; it was just part of a moving pattern.
There wasn't anything he could do about Maybeth, either.18
The physical practicalities of Sammy's daily life provide him with the language with which to understand metaphysical issues. The father he had never had, and whom he and James had failed to trace, the severe beating-up they had suffered in their search, also belong to this incomprehensible and irretrievable past. ‘Without a father,’ Sammy thinks, ‘it was like being lost without a map.’ And that cheers him, because ‘the picture was exciting, not frightening; it was an adventure. Sammy didn't mind adventures’.19
Maturation creeps up on James and Sammy unobtrusively, in afterthoughts, humble metaphors, and chance insights. But, most importantly, it takes place reciprocally. The beating-up which they endure—which comes close to a killing—amounts to a decisive rite de passage, with Sammy showing extraordinary physical courage and James employing his intelligence and way with words. But for all its dramatic intensity, Voigt makes it clear that the real maturation occurs afterwards as the two brothers think and talk about what happened. In the closing pages, the two of them acknowledge their understanding of each other—and their responsibility towards Maybeth. In their talk, it becomes clear that the problems of fatherhood have been put behind them; this is a maturing of brotherhood.
A Solitary Blue more closely fits the notion of a maturation novel than the preceding two: it is exclu- sively about character. It is also structurally very straightforward in its representation of personal growth: it is a there-and-back novel, taking the boy, Jeff, further and further into himself until he is at the very edge of breakdown, and then—almost exactly halfway through—bringing him out again, safely back to sanity and stability, with the help of his father.
From the start, Jeff is a lonely little boy, trained in acquiescence and submission, and over-aware of other people's reactions so that he can please them. His wariness is conveyed in extended deadpan descriptions, as if the narrator's voice is located behind the little boy's eyes as he carefully appraises everything that happens to him and every place he finds himself in. This example occurs when Jeff has flown for the first time to visit his mother's family:
At the luggage claim Jeff picked out his father's battered leather suitcase and went to the waiting area. This was a big room, with two long walls of window and two short walls of ticket counters. He sat on a plastic chair, his suitcase at his feet.
Outside the window to the runway, the sun went down and the sky turned dark.20
Jeff is always conscious of two things; the details of place and the changes that occur in those details as time passes.
… Jeff kept an eye on his suitcase and on the clock. He wasn't hungry, he wasn't tired. He waited.
And he waited. The room was less crowded now, and the twin headlights drove up less frequently. The air grew quiet …21
Melody, his mother, arrives eventually to take him to her grandmother's house, and when Jeff is left alone in his room, the careful and deliberate description resumes. The reader is given every detail about the bed, the walls, the furniture, ‘a little writing table, with a chair pulled up to it’, the wardrobe where he hangs all his clothes, how he arranges his brush and comb and where he lays his toothpaste and toothbrush.22 This description is an inventory of prolonged discomfort, because all the time Jeff really needs to go to the toilet; but, like visitors everywhere, he doesn't know where it is. With Jeff, though, this systematic watchfulness has developed into a chronic and necessary part of his coping, a strategy of discipline and disguise to conceal his inner vulnerability.
In the days that follow, Jeff explores the house and the people, the town and the country nearby, the hierarchy and ethos of a family which is totally strange to him. The orderly prose enacts the orderly way he assembles the details of this new environment he finds himself in. Most of the children in the Tillerman series have to make or re-make a sense of family and stability within a place and this is Jeff's first experience of a family with a sense of its own continuity and distinctiveness, a quality which is (much later) revealed as weird, unloving and even cruel. The way of life represented by the old grandmother is ‘contented’ to be the way it is; he later thinks of the ‘spacious indifference’ of her house.23 It is inert, and Jeff literally falls asleep when he resolves to try to think it out.24
But he falls in love with his mother, Melody.
Jeff sensed that she wanted him to talk about school, but he was bemused by sensations and couldn't chatter. He felt as if he had been cold, frozen down to his bones and into the marrow, and suddenly now he lay under the warmth of the sun. He could feel himself growing easy, relaxed, under the warmth; he couldn't distract himself from the enjoyment of that. It had something to do with the way his mother held his hand, held to his arm when they walked, touched him with his glance. His sensations were half remembered, memory growing stronger with every minute he was with her.25 (emphasis added)
There is more going on here than that rather commonplace cold-and-warmth figure of speech might suggest. Jeff is a thinker, very aware of himself and already able to anticipate what he thinks Melody would like him to do. He is also, secretly, a rather adult boy (‘bemused’), and at the same time stirred by fragmentary memories of having been loved by Melody in his infancy. And tormented, too: why can't he ‘chatter’, and why would he want to ‘distract himself’ from this pleasure? Already, Jeff is being divided into two selves.
The journey home confirms this division.
It was not simply going from a warm to a colder climate, or from his mother to his father. It was also going from one self to another. In Charleston, he was Jeffie, Jefferson, Melody's son, the last in a long line of Boudrault men. In Baltimore, he was Jeff Greene, self-sufficient and reticent, no trouble at all, occupying his corner of the world. But he knew now how it felt to be loved, to be happy.26
Is Jeff thinking these thoughts? Or is the narrator interpreting for the reader? In the gap between those two possibilities, the reader's own understanding takes possession. Later, back home, Jeff's duality becomes real in a different—more visual—way when he looks into the bathroom mirror and ‘catches his own grey eyes’.
He stared at them, his glance going from one to the other mirrored eye, surprised.
These were his mother's eyes. His eyebrows did not arch over them, as his mother's did, but were straight. His hair lay flat on his head; his mouth was broader, thinner than Melody's. But the shape of the face—he almost traced it in the mirror with his finger—the straight, narrow nose, the chin, was very like hers. He looked back into his own eyes, a grey so deep that it did not ever change colours. They were like hers, they were hers. He felt almost as if he could convince himself that he was looking at Melody, that she was with him now. He hugged the idea to himself and went downstairs.27
He has made Melody into a secret, dangerously tied in with his sense of his own identity. She is, of course, totally unworthy of his love. Everything she says wrong-foots him and she lets him down at every turn. Cynthia Voigt's creation of this character never falters. The writing seems to be in love with Melody—it has to be because Jeff is—while simultaneously exposing what kind of woman she is. The account of her final betrayal when she abandons him for a month, needs to be quoted in full:
… ‘Where have you been?’ she asked him.
Jeff just let the happiness grow inside him.
‘Nobody knew where you were,’ Melody said. ‘You shouldn't just go wandering off like that.’
She was angry. ‘I'm sorry,’ Jeff said. ‘I told Gambo this morning.’
Melody stood up and took him out into the front hallway to say, ‘You know she can't remember anything. Honestly, Jeffie, I thought I could trust you.’
Jeff felt ashamed of himself, although he couldn't be quite sure why, and he hadn't noticed Gambo forgetting, just not being interested. ‘I'm sorry,’ he said, and then said it again. ‘I'm sorry.’
She wasn't satisfied. ‘And I told Max I'd go with him out to Sante Fe, and now I don't know if I can,’ she told Jeff. ‘All you can say is, "I'm sorry". Just like your father.’
Jeff just stared at her. He couldn't have spoken. He was confused, between guilt at failing her, dismay that she was going away again, and the desire that she not be angry with him.
‘Well?’ she asked.
He swallowed. ‘When?’
‘We have to leave tonight and drive straight through, to get there in time. I had to wash and iron everything, and Miss Opal is so slow—it takes her ages to do anything these days.’
‘But Melody … ’ Jeff heard his own voice complaining and saw anger rise in her eyes again. He didn't protest any more. ‘For how long?’ he asked.
‘A month, maybe five weeks. It's a really important chance for Max. And you're here to keep an eye on Gambo for me so it's all right. If you weren't here I don't know how I'd get away.’
Jeff made himself accept it, right then. He knew that if he waited even for a second, he would start complaining, and then she really wouldn't like him. ‘OK,’ he said.
‘Oh Jeffie, I knew I could count on you,’ and she smiled into his eyes…. ‘Come and watch me pack? We can catch up with each other. Oh, I missed you, Jeffie,’ she said. She looked like she meant it. He felt like she was telling the truth, even though he knew she must be lying.28
Jeff's disillusionment is twofold: he can see through Melody's manipulative love for him; and he has been shocked to discover his own weakness.
… He felt … as if he had been broken into thousands of little pieces. Broken and then dropped into some dark place. Some dark place where he was always going to stay.
… He had never suspected how easy he was to break.
He couldn't think of anything he wanted to do. Ever.29
This is despair, not maturation. He seeks solitude on a remote beach, where he can feel ‘washed clean, healed’.30 Eventually, when he returns to his father's house and his old way of life, he takes the idea and imagery of this beach with him, locked into a private place in his mind where he can feel safe. He has become solitary and blue. These pages31 faithfully chart the disintegration of the self, as Jeff locks himself away from all contact. He is now a seriously disturbed boy, on the edge of complete breakdown. His outer life is a matter of mechanically going through the motions—to ensure that he is left alone with his private inner life left uninterrupted. Jeff has set up a psychological lock-out, an isolation to guarantee that he won't unravel like a ‘melody’ turning into its meaningless separate components.32
But Jeff is rescued. And it is characteristic of Cynthia Voigt that there is no total mental collapse, no therapy, no psychological fireworks. Jeff's father had all along understood more than the reader had given him credit for. He steps in now, prompted by school reports of truanting and flunked courses, and the two of them begin to talk—two males hurt by the same woman, beginning to discover (to their own muted astonishment) that they are both affectionately interested in each other. This delicately written account of the intimacy between father and son, both habitually reticent and undemonstrative, is a supreme authorial achievement.
Maturation for Jeff is recovery from disillusionment—but also from his growing sense that he had no self at all, no identity. He is appalled to discover that, when he tries to recall his earlier years in school, he remembers some of the teachers and some of the children but never himself. ‘It was almost as if he'd been a ghost in all those rooms, all those days, a ghost in his own life.’33 This idea is later picked up and worked out more fully.
Most of the time, he thought, he practised not being anybody. If you weren't anybody then nobody could—what? Hurt you or leave you behind? Make you unhappy? But then they couldn't make you happy either, could they? If you played it safe, then you kept safe.34
This ‘not being anybody’ accounts for all those long paragraphs of apparently endless description which filled so much of the first half of the novel. Cynthia Voigt's task was to represent life as observed by a consciousness habitually seeking to hide itself. This was style as symptom. The recovery in the second part of the novel is possible only because Jeff is capable of intelligent self-analysis; he does work things out for himself, privately at first, until later this inner speech becomes external and collaborative in conversations with his father. Talk becomes understanding and healing.
Dicey appears on the scene at about this point but his growing friendship with her is difficult because of his experience with Melody. In the concluding section, Melody makes one last appeal35 to Jeff and almost succeeds in demolishing his recovering sense of self. But Jeff comes through this with the help of his uncommunicative father; and Dicey plays her part too, telling Jeff that her grandmother thinks he is a ‘rare bird’ with ‘staying power and a gentle spirit’.36 Voigt never uses the words ‘maturity’ or ‘maturation’; Jeff's quietly joyous sense that he has a valued place in the world is both more muted and more dramatic: he feels as if he had just got a letter from ‘somebody wise enough to know the truth, from everybody, or at least everybody that mattered’.
‘Hello,’ the letter said. ‘Hello, Jeff Greene, I've been watching you and I like you and I want to know you better. This is just to say I'm glad you're alive in the world.’ The list of signatures, he thought, would include his own.37
Dicey's reference to a ‘rare bird’ ties in with the symbolism of the solitary blue heron of the title. It first appears viewed by Jeff from a bus as he is travelling from his mother's home to his father's: it is described as ‘unnoble and unbeautiful’, occupying ‘its own insignificant corner of the landscape in a timeless, long-legged solitude’.38 The heron reappears later, described in some ornithological detail, but with nothing but its isolation to suggest a connection with Jeff: it is part of this fully and relentlessly described landscape.39 Later, however, when Jeff and his father are considering a new home, Jeff's mind seems to be made up when a blue heron appears and stares at him. ‘Jeff stared back, not moving, except for the smile on his mouth.’40 When it appears for the last time, its solitariness is again emphasized before it turns its back ‘in a stately gesture of dismissal’.41 The symbolism of boats and sailing in the first two novels of the series has already demonstrated the tendency of symbols in this series not to be clear, their resistance to analysis or definition. That is the role of symbols—but Voigt's symbols are so modest and undramatic that they are almost indistinguishable from everything around them. She seems almost to be renouncing them, or exposing their untrustworthiness, the slippery way in which they are both potent and at the same time commonplace. If it were not for the title of the book, the solitary blue heron would be just one of the thousands of observed details of this fictionally realized world.
The closing chapters of A Solitary Blue are remarkable because Jeff, his father and Dicey—all individualists given to considerable reticence—formulate within their heads, and occasionally in conversation with one another, a collective understanding of themselves, and of life, love and relationships, which constitute what amounts to a philosophy in which Jeff can find a comfortable place. If this constitutes his maturity, it is made clear to the reader partly in the form of ‘wisdom statements’. These are possible because, in the Tillerman series, maturity equals understanding. Jeff articulates them, sometimes privately for himself, and sometimes with other people. When, for example, he asks his father if he thinks there is such a thing as a one-woman man (meaning, really, is he—Jeff—such a person?), the Professor replies: ‘I wouldn't be surprised if you were; it seems to be in your character. And what's in your character is what you've got to deal with.’42 And, later, when the two of them are considering whether Melody ever loved Jeff, his father says:
‘It strikes me that love is just the beginning. If you think about it, Jeff. I think we can't help loving, but what matters is what we do about it. What we do with love. Do for it. What love does with us.’
Jeff does not simply take this statement and apply it to himself; its meaning to him depends on his appreciation of his father.
… Jeff could see what his father was looking at: the Professor was looking at his own love for Melody and for Jeff; the Professor was sitting up and away from them, studying them and trying to understand how they worked. The Professor was doing what he always did, using his knowledge and experience to try to understand things as they really were.
Jeff could do that too …43
In spite of the symbolism of the solitary blue heron, it is in these carefully timed and staged formulations that a stronger sense of mature understanding emerges. Trying ‘to understand things as they really were’ is, in fact, a constant theme in the Tillerman series. Such perceptions are arrived at most frequently as points of dramatic understanding, achieved after considerable suffering and confusion, but sometimes as personal epiphanies. At the end of A Solitary Blue, when Melody has said to Jeff that she can never be ‘happy’ knowing about poverty in Colombia and doing nothing about it, he speculates inwardly:
Happy, unhappy—Jeff was beginning to think that wasn't the question at all. The Tillermans never worried about that, they worried about … living right for each one of them, together. He guessed you might call that happy, but he didn't think that was it, he didn't think that was the half of it.44
Perhaps ‘epiphany’ is not the best word to describe such insights. The language—and the ellipse—suggest something much more cautious, more provisional, more exploratory. There is no such thing as a fully-achieved wisdom.
The Runner, however, shows that maturity can go wrong, and understanding can readily turn into cynicism and rejection. It is an historical novel, a flashback to the generation before Dicey, to the time when the US was beset by two momentous issues—civil rights and the Vietnam War. Anyone reading the novels in the order of publication already knows that the main protagonist, Bullet, is killed in Vietnam. So a different kind of reading is required, with a renunciation of the right to a happy resolution, an acceptance that the narrative leads not towards adulthood and an imagined possible future, but to an early death. Everything in this novel is obstructed and the reader, from the start, is caught up in this. It is a narrative driven by destructive and frustrated energies. Bullet's name is his fate.
Bullet, full of adolescent physical energy, is an unlikable hero—aggressive, uncommunicative, rebellious, cruel to his dog, unresponsive to all appeals to his better nature, indifferent to the two big issues of his day. The emphasis throughout is on his separateness. He is realistic about life and people, and proud of his contemptuous understanding of everyone else's foolishness. He can see through everyone and everything.45 Maturation is impossible for him because he thinks he is already ‘grown up’ and everyone around him has been left behind.
… Bullet knew what had happened—he'd grown up. His classmates talked about being grown up and realistic, but they didn't have the first idea about what was really involved in it …46
What is involved in being ‘grown up’, for Bullet, is a proud and contemptuous acceptance that what happened to most people was ‘nothing, at best, and getting wiped out, at worst’.47 This perception is the basis of his untroubled and calculating confidence, which expresses itself both in his conversations and in his physical fights.48 He opts out of everything: he loves running but doesn't care about winning; he loves sports meetings but despises the camaraderie and is dismissive of the sportsmanship ethos. ‘He didn't run to win races, or to beat anybody. He ran because his body was built for it. He ran for himself. Simple as that.’49 He is described as ‘absolutely unconnected’50 and later this word is taken up against him as a reproach.
But Bullet does show some ‘connection’ in private—his unexpected feelings of grief and self-reproach when he kills the Old Dog; the short intimate time he spends with his mother afterwards; when he admits that he wishes Liza hadn't gone away;51 when he accepts that his friend Patrice is ‘coloured’,52 and—perhaps most significantly—when he notices and appreciates the beautiful black girl athlete and privately acknowledges her.53
But, contrary to all the expectations of the maturation novel, these apparently transforming perceptions transform nothing. The most significant example of this is the issue of racism in the school. Bullet is not deceived by the principal's time-serving hypocrisy as he addresses the assembled students. He simply stands up and leaves, very publicly. It looks for a moment as if he has—at last—made a stand, and certainly his friend Tamer believes he has the kind of charisma which might have swayed the opinions of the assembled students. But Bullet's outspokenness is not ideological or in any way principled; it is an expression of his personal indifference. He just walks out.
He waited, to see if [the principal] had anything else he wanted to say, not nervous, not uncomfortable, just waiting. He didn't care, and that seemed to sink in after a while—he didn't care about the principal up on the stage, or about Tommy up there blowing it, or about the students sitting turned in their seats to watch him. None of them could make him do anything, and he knew it.54
Bullet takes action but he does not take sides. He rejects the principal's hypocrisy only because he personally despises it, but he does not see beyond that to its wider ethical or ideological implications. Everything about this novel is self-defeating and circular. The circularity is not inclusive and embracing but imprisoning, and its energies are reminiscent of a caged animal. It is energy with nowhere to go. His running—always returning back to exactly where he started—gets him nowhere; it is highly trained and disciplined young vitality with nowhere to direct itself. Either because of his own temperament or because of the time he lived in, Bullet can make no progress. Enlisting for him is not a matter of commitment but of acquiescence, of finding an arena for his tough and disciplined physical energy.
Related to this is the Housman theme, introduced by Bullet's English teacher, ‘the old wind in the old anger’.55 This is what Voigt is interested in: representing the combination of adolescent anger and energy and power, the Tillerman stubbornness tragically located in a time in US history when the young were trapped, their futures cut off, their ideals confused and blocked, so that maturation can develop only in distorted ways. Bullet thinks he knows all about it:
Growing up meant you knew what you wanted and you worked for it, and you didn't let yourself get in your own way. Not dreams, not memories—he knew he could allow no weakness in himself if he was going to win free. He could feel the danger of his father's will closing in around him, and he could feel his own strength too. It would cost him, but what didn't cost something?56
He sees growing up in terms of conflict and triumph. And, with a tyrannical and aggressive father like his—and an uncommunicative mother who will not take sides between father and son—how else could he understand maturation? The contrast with Jeff, in A Solitary Blue, is striking: Jeff found himself recognized within a small group of loved-ones; but Bullet is challenged for supremacy. His family conflict is connected in his thinking with the other great conflict—Vietnam and the draft.
They were all, Bullet knew, frightened. Fear sat behind their eyes as they looked at one another. Fear for themselves, fear for one another. They really didn't know, Bullet thought; and maybe you had to grow up in a family like his to know what was really worth being afraid of. They said they argued from moral conviction, labelled it an oppressive war, a dirty war, an imperialistic war, a war for the big corporations—but he knew fear when he smelled it. The way he figured it, you were going to die anyway …57 (emphasis added)
The bitter implication of the statement I have italicized is that growing up in a loving family incapacitates a young man and leaves him too frightened to take either one side or the other in the big issue of Vietnam. The others, he realizes near the end of the novel, all want to avoid the draft and the danger altogether.
But that was the one choice they didn't have, because you didn't choose the time you were born in.58
If that perception is the climax of his wisdom, the question arises: what constitutes maturation? Self-knowledge? Acceptance of the need to ‘connect’? But Bullet only half-learns his many lessons—or learns them but fails to follow through the learning. This is a novel of frustration: of energies blocked off, of anger, of connections thwarted, of a character who cannot mature because of the time he was living in. Whether Bullet's unsentimental appraisal of the divided world he belongs to amounts to a flawed maturity, or a complete failure of maturity, is a matter of opinion. Perhaps it is the only kind of maturity possible at such a time in American history.
But that is not quite all. This novel is more complex than a chronicle of social or individual moral impotence. A young man not lucky enough to have a father like Jeff's, or a brother like Sammy and James, and unlucky enough to have been growing up at this particular period, still has his energy to somehow contain and direct. The adrenaline and muscularity of youth, the super-heroic testosterone of young men, does not quietly dissipate, leaving the rest of society at peace. The Runner also celebrates that adolescent physicality—its amoral and uncompromising daring.
In some ways, this novel is an elegy for a generation. Perhaps that is overstating the matter; but certainly, when Abigail Tillerman takes the phone call telling her that Bullet has been killed in action, that he was ‘a fine soldier’ and ‘a letter would follow’, and she takes a cleaver and ‘slices through the connection, where the wires came out from the wall’59 she has silenced the perennial voices of cliché. As her son was, she now becomes ‘disconnected’—until, of course, her four grandchildren arrive a few years later and reconnect her.
Come a Stranger (1986) is a novel about communities visited by significant strangers. Tamer Shipp is an important one, then the Tillermans (providing an agreeable frisson since they are not strangers to the reader), and finally, in the closing pages, Dexter Halloway. The stranger theme is tied in with the exploration of race and the issue of ‘colour’ and, for the first time in the series, a girl's physical maturity is a central point of interest.
When Dexter remarks that Mina doesn't look fifteen, she replies: ‘I never looked fifteen. I looked ten for a while, then I started looking twenty-eight.’60 This is characteristic of Mina: she is articulate, funny, and—for most of the time—relaxed, unembarrassed, at ease in her world, and very aware of the ridiculous. But, for all her joking, she knows (and the reader knows) that her physical precociousness was earlier in the novel used as a pretext for removing her from the ballet summer school. Mina compares the process of physical growing-up to an insect shedding its chrysalis or a crab its skin,61 though with typical perspicuity she pushes the cliché beyond its usual limits by acknowledging that that is when a creature is most vulnerable to attack. This is timely, for the attack on Mina comes a few pages later, when she is expelled from the ballet class because she has allegedly ‘failed’.
When she first arrives at the school, Mina realizes that she is—for the first time in her life—a stranger herself, a black girl among the whites at the summer school. ‘They were seeing the outside of her,’ she thinks.62 She laughs out loud at the thought that she is ‘the only little black girl there’. The word her thoughts pick up on is not black but little.
… Little? Well, she wasn't any too little any more. There were bras and a box of Kotex she'd unpacked with the rest of her things. She guessed, if they thought she was little, in any way, they were underestimating her. She guessed she was going to have to make friends with them all over again. She stretched her arms out, her broad shoulders up, and flexed her fingers. She didn't mind that. She always liked making friends.63
In her classes all the students are surrounded by mirrors. There is no escape from them. They reflect ‘Mina's blackness back and back, among the white skin of the other girls’.64 But in spite of its emphasis on the insistent facts of skin colour and difference, Come a Stranger does not allow the reader to settle on personal image or physical maturity; the narrative goes inwards, showing how an intelligent and sensitive black girl awakens to the racial injustices of her own day and the past, and also to other minorities. Maturation for all of the main characters in this series is a matter of understanding; but for Mina, this understanding has to be arrived at in terms of race—who is a stranger to whom, and why, and with what consequences.
The issue of her dancing is not oversimplified: Mina admits it has become clumsy and she has been clowning around. ‘Your people develop earlier,’ the principal says, unwittingly confirming Mina's status as ‘stranger’, and then going on to expose the ambivalences within notions of maturity by adding: ‘The trouble is, you're so mature.’65 Mina is told that she must leave—‘It's always hard to admit that you've failed.’
At that, Mina was so angry that she did burst into tears. She was so angry she just wept. She was weeping so hard she couldn't speak. Just growing wasn't failure, you couldn't say someone had failed because her body grew bosoms and hips and the muscles worked differently.66
This is a bitter experience for Mina.
‘Strangers are a fearful people,’67 says her father in one of his sermons, speaking of Jonah having to go and live among strangers in Nineveh. Mina ‘folds her hands in her lap’ and listens attentively. However, she is at this stage—before her humiliation at the ballet school—untroubled by her position as a black girl in a white world: and so when she wins the dance scholarship and her father asks if she was the only black girl there—and why?—she replies blithely:
‘I was the only one good enough, I guess.’68
She is resistant to books about black history, pointing out to her mother that ‘except for slavery, nothing ever happened to black people’69 and, later, grumbling that whereas white people had the great classical myths, ‘all we ever had was Brer Rabbit. And the Ananse stories’.70
She was, of course, recruited to the ballet school to ensure federal funding; but the words token black are not actually articulated until Tamer Shipp arrives in Mina's community. He has come to meet her train the day she returns home. He takes her to a restaurant and asks her how it feels to be a ‘token black, retired’.71 This turns her tears into sudden laughter but—as a check to simplistic readings—there is an incident immediately afterwards in which Mina is given a gentle lesson about other ways in which people, not just blacks, can become strangers in their own community. Mr Shipp concludes that the waitress, who is weighed down with weariness and who is probably a single mother since she has ‘the ghost of a wedding band’ on her finger, should have an extra large tip.
‘Because you feel sorry for her?’ Mina guessed.
‘Because I know about how she feels,’ Mr Shipp corrected her.
‘But Tamer,’ Mina said … ‘you're not divorced, are you?’
He shook his head.
‘Have you been a waiter?’
He shook his head again, smiling, teasing, waiting for her to work it out.
‘And you're not a woman, and you're not white.’72
Tamer Shipp isn't black either, he points out. Mina is for a few brief moments embarrassed by this strange assertion, but Tamer leads her into a conversation about shades of skin colour, pointing out that ‘blacks, it's what we call ourselves, so that's all right’ but that, in fact, they are all different kinds of black.
… She thought about that, about all the colours the blacks were. There was dark, like Mr Shipp, dark, dark brown so that in certain lights you could see the purply black that went into it. Her skin was like a chocolate candy bar, a Hershey bar to be precise. Kat's had coppery tints in it. Some blacks were so light they were beige, almost, and some had golden tones and—She started to laugh, because he was exactly right about it.73
By the end of their conversation, she and Tamer Shipp are friends. Mina is good at that, making strangers into friends.
In the next chapter Voigt describes Mina at church, watching the congregation from her position in the choir, attending carefully to Tamer Shipp's sermon. It is a contented chapter, describing a community coming together, comfortable with themselves, safely contained in their church, with no strangers amongst them. But the present is not the whole truth; Mina is an enquiring girl and the history of black people in the US inevitably begins to draw her. In a conversation with her old neighbour, Miz Hunter, she comes to realize that they are still only a few generations from slavery. Voigt does not deal in abstractions: Miz Hunter tells Mina how her great-grandfather—‘that big handsome black man’74—ran away and probably died a horrible death in the swamps. The big handsome black man in Mina's life at that moment is Tamer Shipp, and so the imaginative connection is made.
But Mina's imagination was stuck there in the green swamp, with a man who looked like Mr Shipp …
She put her glass down, even though her mouth was dry. She couldn't have swallowed anything. She couldn't have gotten anything down past the anger and misery, the pity and the bitterness all mixed up in her throat. She was looking with a long eye, and that man lay too close to be forgotten about.75
For Mina, growing up also involves ‘a long eye’ looking at the history of black people. In all the Tillerman novels, there is a strong awareness of physicality, a visual and tactile appreciation of bodies. It is apparent in descriptions of the young Sammy in Homecoming and Dicey's Song ; it is there in the accounts of Jeff in A Solitary Blue ; it is strongly, almost bitterly, a part of The Runner, and savagely present in the fight in Sons from Afar. In Come a Stranger, this awareness of the physicality of colour, size and growth becomes acute and, for Mina, inseparably enmeshed both with the past history of black people and with her own personal history of dance and her expulsion from the ballet school.
And herself? Mina looked at her legs, lined up neat, two strong thighs and the knees flexed at the joint, long calves and big feet. She registered her bust under the bathing suit and knew she looked much older than she was. A hundred and fifty years ago, it wouldn't have mattered how old she was; she'd have been treated like a woman grown. Broken to slavery from day one of her life.
She'd have been entirely different. She'd never have had a chance. There were so many people, then, who never did have a chance, no choices to make, not about what to eat or where to go or what to do. She'd never even have had a chance to make her own mistakes. A black girl who was t-roub-le didn't make anybody smile a hundred and fifty years ago. And all because of the colour of her skin, all because the skin covering Samuel's bony back at the far end of the porch was dark skin.
But the blood under it was red, and the bones were white.
Looking with a long eye, Mina saw how close they sat to a hundred and fifty years ago, and fear ran along her blood.76
This is fine writing, passionate and precise. The discourse on skin colour leads, unexpectedly, to Maybeth. Mina becomes friendly with Jeff and Dicey, and is quickly at ease with the whole Tillerman family. Maybeth provides her with a characteristic Voigt epiphany: Maybeth, who throughout has been a transformer and a touchstone for others, doggedly persistent at studies she can't understand, the beautiful girl amusingly described by one character as ‘a Botticelli angel, snapping beans’,77 a vulnerable, mysterious and talented child ‘all wrapped around within the music’.78
… [Mina] tried to name for herself the colour of the girl's cheeks. It was like nothing she had ever seen, except milk maybe. It was rich white, tinted with some creamy colour underneath. It was a beautiful colour.
Looking at the little girl, her mind wandering, Mina just barely stopped herself from jumping up and yelling, Whoo-ee. Oh, Tamer Shipp, she thought, you're right. Coloured does cover just about everything.79
Tamer Shipp has come to stand in for Mina's father at their church in a precisely Freudian way. And part of Mina's understanding of herself—this twelve-year-old girl with the body of a mature woman—is to realize what has happened in relation to him.
During the trip down from Wilmington that July afternoon … Mina had fallen in love with him. She'd fallen so fast, she didn't know until now how deep she'd fallen.80
That, too, is part of Mina's maturation. It is perhaps worth bearing in mind what this novel does not do. There is no exploration of sex with an under-age child, no abuse, no harassment, no guilt and misery, no scandal, no ‘exploration of female sexuality’ and no embarrassment. Here, and in all the novels of the series, Voigt sidesteps the easy expectations of genre and challenges narrative cliché. Her love for an older married man is treated as an issue of understanding rather than hormones. What counts in this novel is what Mina feels and thinks, and how her understanding is the basis of what she does. Everything, Mina realizes, is connected—her first real thoughts about skin colour and poverty had started at the same time as her love for Tamer Shipp, only a few hours after her expulsion from the ballet school. Now the bitterness of that has gone, leaving only a determination:
… But she did know for sure that she'd go where she wanted to go—in this world that had Tamer Shipp in it. Not just go where somebody else said she had to …81
The final chapter acts like a coda; and because it takes place at Jeff's graduation two years later, Mina is thinking a good deal about him. She appreciates the details of his body—‘like some Greek statue of what a young man should look like’82—and her heart is touched by his devotion to Dicey:
… part of the rush of feelings she felt was a sense of freedom, of being ready to grow upwards even farther from the strong tangled roots of her life.83
As in all the Tillerman novels, growth is never an achieved condition. It is freedom and readiness that Mina feels, and a grateful appreciation of the ‘tangled roots of her life’ which make further growth possible—her family, her community, her church, her widening circle of friends, and the strangers that have come into her experience. There are difficulties everywhere, and race is one of the biggest. But ordinary human intercourse—considered, affectionate and thoughtful—is repeatedly shown as capable of transcending the so-called barriers, welcoming the arrival of strangers.
Whether you are a stranger depends to a large extent on where you are. Mina is never a stranger in the enclosed safety provided by her family, her neighbours, and—most importantly—her church. So, when the entire Tillerman family turns up at Mina's church one Sunday, the novel has its own small victory over the divisions of race. Mina, in the choir where she can see everything, enjoys the moment immensely: her mother who ‘looked at Mina with an eyebrow raised’, Mrs Tillerman ‘with her chin up high’, and the congregation's polite and pleased amazement when they hear Maybeth singing out the harmony. There are other victories too—link after link is made, each one a small healing. The sermon, which is about the grief that ‘many of us still carry’ for ‘our sons, our brothers, sweethearts and husbands’,84 seems by chance to be specifically addressed to Abigail Tillerman, with reference to her son. Yet it is not entirely by chance, for Tamer Shipp had had Bullet in mind all along.
… Abigail's eyes were smiling. ‘I thought of him, when you spoke.’
‘I thought of him, writing it—’85
And one more (light-hearted) twist is given to the theme of strangers and colour.
‘I liked the singing. I'd like singing in your choir,’ Maybeth told Mina.
Mina thought she was asking. ‘You can't, even though I'd sure like to sing in a choir with you.’
‘I know, I'm the wrong colour,’ Maybeth explained.
Mina couldn't help it, she got a fit of the giggles.86
Flux and Uncertainty
I have a number of times referred to the density and detail of Cynthia Voigt's narrative manner in the Tillerman series. However, in spite of the apparent certitude and reliability of realism, this fictional world is not composed entirely of fixed phenomena and known relational structures. This is a world of uncertainties and mysteries, where change is a condition of being and where all wisdom is to some extent incomplete and provisional. In such a world, maturation must inevitably be exploratory. The language of these novels is shot through with suggestive colourations that never quite settle into defined meaning. There is a shiftiness in the narrative universe, a slight fuzziness at the edges of apparent certainty.
Ideas and images are employed poetically, strung throughout the seven narratives in extended clusters. One of these clusters has to do with music. The ‘song’ of Dicey's Song is partly explained when we are told that Dicey likes simple beginning-to-end things like songs; the journey in the preceding book was like a song—you began at the start and stopped when you reached the end. And she describes her mother as walking ‘like a song sung without accompaniment’.87 She thinks of experience as a complicated piece of music, but comprehensible because she can grasp one melody at a time.88 These musical analogies begin in the privacy of Dicey's thoughts but they extend throughout the entire series like a motif with variations: Dicey's song—Momma—Maybeth—melody—Melody—guitar—Jeff—hymns. These variations do not work like equations and they do not resolve anything; they provide links and resonances, ways of understanding often working below the level of the characters' conscious thought.
Another analogy Dicey uses to make sense of her life has to do with wind and sea. Travelling on a train, sitting with her hands wrapped carefully around the box containing the ashes of her mother, she:
… felt as if a wind blew through her hands and took even Momma away.
What did that leave her with? The wind and her empty hands. The wind and Dicey.
As if Dicey were a sailboat and the sails were furled up now, the mainsail wrapped up around the boom, and she was sitting at anchor. It felt good to come to rest, the way it felt walking up to their house on a cold evening, seeing the yellow light at the kitchen window and knowing you would be warm inside while the darkness drew in around the house. But a boat at anchor wasn't like a boat at sea.
Except, Dicey thought, a boat at anchor wasn't planted there, like a tree. Furled sails were just waiting to be raised, when the sailor chose to head out again …
How was Dicey supposed to understand?89
The boat/sailing analogy leads to no conclusion; but it does help Dicey to contrast the different realities of movement and fixity. Contradictions bother her. She has been baffled before about the apparently oxymoronic meaning of the phrase ‘home and gone’. Now, standing quietly as they bury Momma's ashes, the phrase again comes into her thoughts.
Dicey stood alone and unmoving. But inside her head her own voice spoke clearly: ‘Gone and home’. Those were all the words to speak over Momma, all the songs to sing.
Home and gone. It didn't seem possible that both of those words could be true, but they were. Dicey shivered in the wind and went inside.90
This brings together her two favourite similes, singing and sailing (a metaphor submerged in the wind). But she returns to the safety of the house. In spite of everything—her need to be near the sea, her boat-restoring—Dicey's natural place is home and hearth, and the security of being in a family. The Tillermans and their friends are marginal people living along an irregular coastline with unclear boundaries between land and sea, where there are marshes and fogs, and an unremarkable flora and fauna. Dicey herself shares this ambivalence: she is preoccupied with repairing and building boats but never goes sailing, as if driven by a work-ethic deriving from her grandmother but never able quite to follow her father and go to sea.
And that brings us to the last novel in the series.
Father and Daughter
‘Just because you work hard doesn't mean you'll get your good ending,’ Maybeth says wisely to Sammy,91 none of them realizing how sharply true this is going to be for Dicey too. The ‘good ending’ to this remarkable series proves to be both ambivalent and uncompromising, as unlike the formulaic closures of teen romances as it is possible to be.
The narrative language which Tillerman readers have become accustomed to has always served especially well with obsessives. In Seventeen against the Dealer, it compels the reader, grimly and insistently, to see life as it is seen by a young woman so preoccupied by physical work of her own choosing that she neglects everything else that matters. The details of planning, calculation and hard physical work are not just described, but enacted and shown, placing the focus, day after day and chapter after chapter, on Dicey's solitariness, her determination and constant muscular tiredness. The slightly self-conscious touches of poetic description have disappeared. The reader is shown how overwork in a consumer society leads to a neglect of intimacies and a dislike of people. In fact, people are seen as interruptions to the main business and their claims are a distraction. This is doubly true of the self-employed, who become enclosed in a particular circularity of their own choosing, suggested here in the way the phrasing turns back on itself:
She had always got things done; working hard, and harder, was what worked for her.92
Business is seductive to Dicey; this is partly because she has always been a person who knows how to focus on a job and see it through until the song, or journey, or job has reached the end; and partly because business does provide its moments of excitement, triumph and jubilation, and its deceptive promises of success, as Dicey finds when she unaccountably gets an order—and the money—to build a boat.
There were a dozen things to do, and she wanted to get to work on them right away, but first she had to go to the shop and unload this wood. She'd never felt less tired in her life.93
Working out how her capital, her energy and the limited space in her cramped workshop can best be used and balanced against each other, Dicey becomes unwittingly trapped in the processes of capitalism. The language is that of commerce and business: setbacks, profit and loss, investment, capital, problem-solving, time management, all of it happening in Dicey's psyche—not in her mind exactly, because she is hardly aware of what is happening to her.
Dicey leaned her head on her hands, and looked at the numbers. Looking at them, and how they didn't change, at their balancings between debits and credits, she made herself look again at Claude's offer. You had to balance time and money. She had to weigh the time she'd have to waste working on Claude's boats against the money that work would bring in.94
Dicey's studying of the books, this ‘balancing between debits and credits’, is a kind of voluntary myopia. She buys into the central capitalist deception in which free choice and compulsion are inseparably confused, perfectly suggested in the choice of words and the shaping of the syntax in comments like:
She was going to do what she had to do, because she had to do it in order to do what she wanted to do.95
She gives her assent to the circularity of this economic treadmill because she is convinced that she is tougher than the system: ‘Things weren't easy, they never had been; in fact, things were often pretty hard. But Dicey was harder.’96 But her illusory independence and freedom to be her own woman is itself shaped by economic realities and the consequences both on her body and her mind of this obsession with physical work are spelled out.
… Her arms ached from the circular motion of sanding and the stroking motion of painting. Her shoulders ached from the hefting around of plywood boats. Her back and the backs of her legs, too, ached—from bending over, to sand and paint, long hour after long hour.97
The syntactic shaping of those sentences, and the repetition of ‘ached’, reinforce the effect of this checklist of exhaustion and effort. But the consequences for her inner life are even more serious. The novel began with an episode in which Dicey savoured the ‘familiar gladness’98 of hearth and home and family, and Chapter Three was devoted almost entirely to a celebratory occasion when almost the whole cast of the series are brought together. But Dicey is in danger of neglecting all that she most cherishes as she loses herself in the preoccupations of business.
Maybeth and Sammy were studying for exams … but Dicey wasn't much help, either. She couldn't remember the things you had to know for American history. She could barely remember two days ago. She wasn't even sure whether it had been a week, or more, and if so how much more, that Gram's deep cough had lingered on, after the stuffed nose and runny eyes of the cold itself. Dicey kept forgetting exactly when it was that the exams would start. She kept forgetting in the evenings to return Jeff's phone calls, and not remembering that she had forgotten until the next evening, when she was too tired to remember not to forget again.99
Again, especially in the final sentence, there is the circular language Voigt has become so good at, where words turn back upon themselves and an uncomfortable meaning is squeezed out of repetition. Dicey thinks she knows herself, that work is what matters and what she can always make herself do. Yet her family demonstrates the wrongness of this certainty—Gram can't work because she is ill; Sam can't get to study tennis because they are not rich enough; and Maybeth can't pass her courses because she is not clever enough.
Into this situation comes a handsome middle-aged drifter, constituting perhaps the most mysterious feature in the entire series. He is shifty as a character and shifty as a narratorial device, indicating—as I suggested above—that the reality so solidly described in Cynthia Voigt's reliable prose is not as reliable as it is made to seem. The seven novels of the Tillerman series define a central problematic absence: the father. There was no father in the first two novels, though his desertion of their mother was a constant theme. Sons and fathers have been explicitly faced, positively and benevolently in A Solitary Blue, with failure and frustration in Sons from Afar. There are an absent father, two loving fathers and a cruel father. The series is concerned with fathers and their role in maturation.
We know of Dicey's missing father that he had thick dark hair, light eyes and a lean body; he liked gambling, stole money and enjoyed telling stories about his adventures at sea, especially among the Pacific Islands. The puzzle for the reader—and once, just, maybe for Dicey too100—is this: the smooth-talking drifter who comes into Dicey's life also has thick dark hair, light eyes and a lean body; he too likes gambling, steals money and enjoys telling her stories about his adventures at sea and the sexual pleasures of the Pacific Islands. Readers also know that, in Sons from Afar, James did a good deal of research about his father and learned that there was something special about him, that he had a kind of charisma that was irresistibly engaging. In the words of a former schoolteacher:
… He was such a bright little boy, you see, and he looked like an angel, big eyes and curly hair and such a sweet face. Not a goody-goody angel, but the kind of little angel who could make God laugh.101
He makes Dicey laugh too. An odd kind of intimacy is established between them as they work, eat and talk together in the tiny workshop.102 He has a lively face, made for fun. He quotes Shakespeare, knows more than she does, and is interested in more things. Dicey suspects she is ‘telling him more than she was telling him’103 and he suspects she doesn't think much at all.
‘You know, Miss Tillerman, in all respect, I'd say you don't think much as a general rule.’
Dicey, taking off her jacket, hat, and scarf, shook her head. ‘You'd be wrong. I'm always thinking about what's next. I've got today all thought out.’104
But there are different kinds of thinking, and different things to think about. A first-time reader will be suspicious of him and a re-reader knows that he will eventually rob Dicey of her last $839. But Cisco is an alternative, not just a villain. He offers a different view of life, irresponsible, perhaps, but one genuinely based on curiosity about a wider world than the narrow one Dicey has enclosed herself in.
‘You ever gamble?’ Cisco asked.
‘I can't afford to lose.’
‘But that's the time when you should,’ Cisco told her.105
This is a key statement, offering the exact reverse of success as seen in an enterprise culture. This advice is handed over to Dicey by the man who reminds her of the old gambling song, ‘Never hit seventeen, when you play against the dealer’106—the same man, perhaps, who gave her a gambling name when she was a baby.
Dicey has many disappointments and makes many mistakes, but it is Cisco's theft of her money which finally brings her to her senses. That he should do this is entirely in character—but it is also a father's gift, forcing her into an understanding of the trap she has enclosed herself in. This is the kind of father he has been all along, unacknowledged and operating negatively. He gives her advice about the work ethic;107 he prompts her into realizing that she misses studying;108 and he advises her to make a more determined effort to keep the love of Jeff. True, his advice comes in the worldly wise and cynical manner characteristic of traditional male thinking: ‘My advice is: switch tactics … Try chasing him. Try it, I'm serious. Unless you want to get rid of him?’109 Of course, he misunderstands his daughter: Dicey is entirely innocent of ‘tactics’ in her relations with Jeff. But his advice is—or might be—a disguised expression of regret that Momma, all those years ago, did not try harder to keep him.
There is no way of being totally sure that Cisco is Dicey's father. But that does not matter; he is a father figure who comes into her life, representing a particular kind of masculinity, disruptive, challenging, uncomfortable, and with a certain genuine understanding of the ways of the world and his own limitations within it. Whatever his motives for stealing Dicey's money, its effect on her is decisive and benevolent.
An Achieved Maturity?
A reader approaching the final chapters of the last novel of a series whose main character has grown into a twenty-one-year-old woman might expect to find indications of achieved maturity. They are, in fact, stacked with wisdom statements and they come, mostly, in the form of moments of perceived self-understanding. First, Dicey feels shame:
… Dicey recognized the feeling she was feeling and knew its right name. Shame. She was ashamed of herself, for all the things she hadn't done right; she figured she should have known how to notice them.110
She has tried to achieve economic maturity and failed. (So much for the popular idea that if you want something passionately enough you will succeed in it.) Dicey's desire has been so strong it has become an obsession, all-absorbing to such an extent that she has probably lost both Jeff and Gram through neglect.
The idea [that she had lost Jeff] had got into her head. It was sinking through all the levels of her understanding, like a stone through thick water. When it hit bottom, she'd feel it. When it hit bottom, she'd know everything that no meant.111
The curiously constructed phrasing of both those quotations, with their repetition, alliteration and internal rhymes, is typical of Voigt's manner as she finds words to suggest the numerous ways people have of not knowing things, or half-knowing, or denying that they know, or realizing that they will in time come to know what they know already. Similes, too, are important to Dicey's way of thinking; she tells herself that Jeff is like a plant—‘he'd just go on with his own growing, the best he could do in whatever the circumstances were’.112 Maybeth she sees as ‘a patch of marsh grass, rooted in the mud, letting the water wash over it’.113 Metaphors of rootedness are important in the Tillerman series but not quite enough; hearth and home are even more important:
… There was an echoing hollowness inside her—not hunger—it was in her chest, not her stomach, and empty hollowness locked inside her rib cage. Like an empty house.114
Dicey might be forgiven for telling herself that she had been the victim of an unusual amount of bad luck; but, in the wave of self-knowledge that sweeps over her, she admits ‘that she was one of her own enemies’115 and that she is, in effect, a gambler, true to both her name and her father's careless philosophy.
Big dreams, she'd had big dreams. When big dreams exploded it was worse than when little ones got lost …
It was as if she'd been playing her hand out, against everybody, gambling on herself.116
In fact, despite Cynthia Voigt's resolute cliché-busting, Dicey does achieve a happy ending with Jeff—but strictly on the terms established through this long series of seven novels. The hearth and home metaphor is insufficient if the person you want most is not there; and the roots metaphor is inadequate because plants can make no effort to change their situation. Dicey, though, can. She goes to see Jeff and everything is quietly resolved in a process of mutual self-knowledge—though characteristically the language of Dicey's thought keeps apologizing for itself:
She couldn't explain. She couldn't even begin to explain. There were too many reason, all too woven tight together into a cloth that was too … beautiful, or thick, or right, or complicated, she didn't know what—she knew only what its value was. She couldn't even begin to put words to it. And then Dicey knew, from looking into Jeff's eyes, that not being able to explain was the right answer.117
Woven into their decision to get married are Dicey's determination to build a boat one day in the future, and Jeff's announcement that he has a ring for her (which readers will recall from A Solitary Blue ) which links both of them to the past.
As I suggested above, the entire series is to some extent based on the insufficiency of language to represent human experience, teaching its readers that that they must accept a provisional and tentative uncertainty as they share with the narrator and with the characters the task of edging cautiously towards understanding. In spite of that, in the closing pages of Seventeen against the Dealer, the voice of self-knowledge in Dicey's head seems to have found the confidence of revelation.
… But when she thought of all the things she wanted to do, and do right—do right by, do as well as they could be done … It was all so risky, because there were no guarantees. You couldn't be sure that any of the risks would pay off. Even if you studied, and planned, and worked, even if you did the best you could, you could still lose out. There was no way to walk away from the truth of that, that's what no guarantees meant. But even knowing that didn't make Dicey feel any different about anything—which puzzled her, because it didn't make sense that it shouldn't. Then she understood—it wasn't guarantees she needed, or any of them needed, but chances, chances to take. Just the chance to take a chance.
And the eye to recognize it, she added.
The hand, to reach out and hold onto it—that too.
And the heart, or the stomach, or wherever courage came from, she thought.118
Maturation is represented as a gaining of wisdom, an acceptance of the chanciness of the world and a knowledge of oneself within it. But, if that understanding is to be articulated, then characters can mature only in terms of the language they have—and Dicey's formulation is made in the language of gambling borrowed from Cisco. The difference is that Cisco was a chancer and a loner, reckless of other people; Dicey's maturity has been earned with the support of her family and Jeff. But ‘earned’ is not the right word, for it implies something achieved, a process complete. Gram knows better that there is no end to the learning:
… Dicey wondered, coming back into Gram's room to play a cutthroat game of cribbage, how old you were before you began to get things settled. She looked at her grandmother, wondering.
In my experience, older than dead.' Gram told her.119
Maturation in the Tillerman series is a serial process; it is never a straightforward transformation into a new and better state, and it rarely occurs as a single moment of breakthrough. Her characters do have such breakthroughs, sometimes an epiphany occurring mid-book or in the closing pages; but their real maturation is a slow unending achievement of small reality truths, one of which is that the only constant is change, that maturation is forever happening. Another is that individuals are always capable of being astonishing, especially under the influence of the people they care about.
This is what maturation finally means: an acceptance of certain hard truths about self and life. To explain it in these terms is almost to reduce it to the simplicities of platitude, but in these novels such truths have been earned and substantiated by the densely convincing solidity of these fictional people and proved upon the pulses of their readers by a perfectly developed and sharply meticulous realistic manner employed in the representation of the inner and outer life. The hesitant language and the insistent prosaic detail ‘creep up on’ the reader as inevitable parts of lives closely and substantially lived in all their concrete and minute detail. The maturation of these characters dawns slowly upon the reader, gradually and incrementally, in the unpretentious accounts of the pulse of existence, comprising thousands of small and carefully-observed private moments and points of interchange.
However, a bigger theme has been lying there implicitly all through the series. The individual boy or girl has to mature against and within the potentially tragic and confused nature of humanity, and the huge unstoppable forces of history. Dicey's understanding of the realities of life begins early; her induction is uncompromising and has nothing to do with the pious popular simplifications which assume there is an answer for every problem, a cure for every tragedy. For example, when Momma is dying in Dicey's Song, the reader is taken resolutely through the unavoidable fact that this is (it just is) an incurable condition, Dicey's anger and grief, her ways of finding comfort—finally arriving at the moment when she unaccountably and illogically begins to feel a little better.
Maturation in these novels is close to realization and being realistic about life. It would be easier to develop a matured understanding if the characters existed in a fixed and predictable universe. But human experience is not like that—which is probably why the apparent authenticity of Cynthia Voigt's realism is constantly shot through with puzzles: the never-resolved uncertainty about Momma and Maybeth; the mystery of the father; and the implied promise associated with boat-building and sailing.
Despite her Americanness, Voigt's language reminds me of Daniel Defoe, who believed that a plain and direct style betokened a plain and direct writer; and her characters remind me of Thomas Hardy's—peripheral people, rural and humble, and far from the great centres of commerce and culture; often poor and socially unimportant, interested in unsophisticated ways in art, history and literature as a source of a wiser and richer understanding of the fullness of life. The fullness of life for the Tillerman characters is in the living of it, with understanding and with the people they love. As for maturation, that consists of living and learning as you live, so that you can live better.
In the Tillerman series, readers are given an extended tragic vision of the human condition which sees knowledge of the way things are, and understanding of self, as the only bearable ways of coping; and which accepts that these kinds of understanding take one by surprise in the form either of private revelations or of wisdom statements from other people, often older but in search of understanding themselves; and that the style and structure of the narrative enact and exemplify this vision. Maturation—like reading these novels—is collaborative and exploratory.
1. Cynthia Voigt (1982, 1984), Dicey's Song, Collins, pp. 83-4.
2. Wolfgang Iser, quoted by Peter Hunt (1991), Criticism, Theory, and Children's Literature, Blackwell, p. 100.
3.Dicey's Song p. 131.
4. Cynthia Voigt (1981, 1983), Homecoming, Collins, pp. 221-5.
5. Ibid., p. 11.
6. Ibid., p. 67.
7. Ibid., p. 22.
8. Ibid., p. 27.
9. Ibid., p. 128.
10. Ibid., p. 24.
11. Ibid., p. 265.
12. Cynthia Voigt (1987, 1988), Sons from Afar, Collins, pp. 58-9.
13. Ibid., pp. 37-8.
14. Ibid., p. 202.
15. Ibid., pp. 265-6.
16. Ibid., p. 259.
17. Ibid., pp. 274-5.
18. Ibid., p. 280.
19. Ibid., p. 287.
20. Cynthia Voigt (1983, 1985), A Solitary Blue, Collins, pp. 30-1.
21. Ibid., p. 31.
22. Ibid., p. 37.
23. Ibid., p. 102.
24. Ibid., p. 52.
25. Ibid., p. 44.
26. Ibid., p. 56.
27. Ibid., p. 61.
28. Ibid., pp. 95-6.
29. Ibid., p. 96.
30. Ibid., p. 109.
31. Ibid., pp. 96-116.
32. Ibid., p. 114.
33. Ibid., p. 138.
34. Ibid., p. 142.
35. Ibid., p. 138 ff.
36. Ibid., p. 215.
37. Ibid., p. 216.
38. Ibid., p. 56.
39. Ibid., p. 100.
40. Ibid., p. 125.
41. Ibid., p. 186.
42. Ibid., p. 185.
43. Ibid., p. 212.
44. Ibid., p. 219.
45. Cynthia Voigt (1985, 1986), The Runner, Collins, p. 26.
46. Ibid., p. 29.
47. Ibid., p. 26.
48. Ibid., p. 34.
49. Ibid., p. 103.
50. Ibid., p. 70.
51. Ibid., p. 185.
52. Ibid., p. 151.
53. Ibid., p. 210.
54. Ibid., p. 176.
55. Ibid., pp. 180-1.
56. Ibid., p. 18.
57. Ibid., p. 30.
58. Ibid., p. 196.
59. Ibid., p. 221.
60. Cynthia Voigt (1987), Come a Stranger, Collins, p. 234.
61. Ibid., pp. 72-3.
62. Ibid., p. 63.
63. Ibid., p. 63.
64. Ibid., p. 65.
65. Ibid., pp. 74-5.
66. Ibid., p. 77.
67. Ibid., p. 16.
68. Ibid., p. 41.
69. Ibid., p. 47.
70. Ibid., p. 51.
71. Ibid., p. 82.
72. Ibid., p. 87.
73. Ibid., p. 90.
74. Ibid., p. 103.
75. Ibid., p. 105.
76. Ibid., pp. 119-20.
77.A Solitary Blue, p. 182.
78.Come a Stranger, p. 204.
79. Ibid., p. 204.
80. Ibid., p. 128.
81. Ibid., p. 129.
82. Ibid., p. 230.
83. Ibid., pp. 230-1.
84. Ibid., p. 223.
85. Ibid., p. 225.
86. Ibid., p. 223.
87.Dicey's Song, p. 128.
88. Ibid., p. 213.
89. Ibid., p. 214.
90. Ibid., pp. 220-1.
91. Cynthia Voigt (1989, 1990), Seventeen against the Dealer, Collins, p. 132.
92. Ibid., pp. 14-5.
93. Ibid., p. 55.
94. Ibid., p. 71.
95. Ibid., pp. 72-3.
96. Ibid., p. 81.
97. Ibid., p. 86.
98. Ibid., p. 19.
99. Ibid., p. 87.
100. Ibid., p. 152.
101.Sons from Afar, pp. 86-7.
102.Seventeen against the Dealer, p. 1096.
103. Ibid., p. 114.
104. Ibid., p. 119.
105. Ibid., p. 123.
106. Ibid., p. 146.
107. Ibid., p. 161.
108. Ibid., p. 186.
109. Ibid., p. 224.
110. Ibid., p. 177.
111. Ibid., p. 192.
112. Ibid., p. 200.
113. Ibid., p. 200.
114. Ibid., p. 216.
115. Ibid., p. 233.
116. Ibid., p. 234.
117. Ibid., p. 251.
118. Ibid., p. 254.
119. Ibid., p. 239.
Caren J. Town (essay date 2004)
SOURCE: Town, Caren J. "‘Keep on Asking Questions’: Tough Girls in Young Adults Fiction: ‘Money on a Map’: Dicey Tillerman's Search for Home and Identity." In The New Southern Girl: Female Adolescence in the Works of 12 Women Authors, pp. 164-69. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2004.
[In the following essay, Town analyses how issues of home, identity, and family—and their uncertain status throughout Homecoming—affect the maturation of Voigt's protagonist Dicey.]
In the first novel in Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman series, Homecoming, 13-year-old Dicey Tillerman is abandoned (with her three younger siblings) by their troubled mother. After the "sad moon-face[d]" woman leaves them in a mall parking lot with instructions to find an unmet aunt, Dicey decides to walk to Bridgeport, Connecticut, with the children in tow. Dicey, who always "looks for the worst" because, as she says, she "likes to be ready," (8) knows that she will have to be the one to get the other children to their aunt's house safely, find food and money on their trip, and deal with whatever (as yet unimagined) circumstances await them when they arrive. Along the way, Dicey will grow and change, as the journey demands a premature adulthood of her, and she will refine her definitions of gender, family, and home in the process.
As Virginia Wolf puts it, the novel "celebrates ‘coming’ as much, if not more than, ‘home’," (43) and it is true that the story is centered on Dicey's growth and development as she makes her way first toward her aunt's and eventually toward her grandmother's house. This growth also has a feminist trajectory, as Dicey comes to redefine her sense of gender. Like the heroines in Paterson and Taylor's novels (as well as the other girls discussed in this study), Dicey will manipulate traditional ideas and create entirely new configurations that, while they may resemble conventional models, actually offer profound challenges to those conventions. In the first book-length study of Voigt, Suzanne Reid says that Voigt's "protagonists begin as obedient and uncritical, silent or inarticulate about their own reactions to life and people around them. A major step toward growth is their realization that they can express opinions and ideas that are different from the expectations or conventions of the context in which they live" (52). Of course, this could apply to her male characters as well, but the movement from "obedient and uncritical" to expressing unconventional opinions is especially relevant to young women, who are more often expected to remain silent and docile.
Another important issue in Homecoming (and the second novel in the series, Dicey's Song ) is how Dicey comes to reconsider her conception of family. From the first page of the novel, for example, motherhood is called into question—and redefined. Dorothy Clark says that while "the institution of motherhood—conceptions of motherhood as functions of patriarchy—does not work … the experience of mothering, of caring and nurturing, permeates it" (198). The children are abandoned by their mother, but Dicey immediately takes on that role. Throughout the novel all the children are "mothered" by various unconventional surrogate parents they encounter on their journey, from circus performers to male college students. Finally, their grandmother, who—with her bare feet and prickly manner—radically redefines the role of mother, assumes the job.1
Along with her redefinition of gender, and mothering, Voigt also modifies the mythic structure of the Bildungsroman. Several critics have mentioned the ways in which Voigt modifies fairy tales, the orphan story, and the myth of Odysseus. Consistent with Lissa Paul's position that child protagonists have more possibilities because they are not yet restricted by the rules of the adult world, Betty Greenway says that "Voigt's novels are reassuring in the same way fairy tales are. The small and powerless child can and does succeed through cleverness, resourcefulness, and active innocence" (127-8). Clearly, "cleverness, resourcefulness, and active innocence" are the hallmarks of Dicey's character, although one must add determination and stubborn persistence to the list. In fact, by the time Dicey gets to the second novel of the series, Dicey's Song, she will have to learn how to relinquish some of the control she is trying to maintain over her siblings' lives.2
From the beginning of Homecoming, Dicey shows her determination. Dicey, who "read the maps," has been put in charge of the others: ten-year-old intel- lectual James, nine-year-old lovely but probably dyslexic Maybeth, and pugnacious six-year-old Sammy. Almost immediately, Dicey realizes that she will have to get them to Bridgeport, with only a little money and some paper sacks of food and clothing, and she decides that, in spite of her situation, there is no point worrying. All there is, Dicey thinks, is "Just going ahead. People might give them food. She might be able to earn food or money, somehow. She couldn't think how they'd manage it. But they would have to manage it, somehow" (27). Although she decides not to worry, thinking about what to do to keep her family together is what distinguishes Dicey from other children, and even from her mother, who abandoned them when she could no longer cope. James comments that it is "lucky for us" that Dicey isn't their mother, as she would never "go off and leave us" (38). It quickly becomes Dicey's job to be the solid foundation for her family; throughout the trip she will have very little time to indulge her emotions or imagination, but she will have to use her good sense.
For example, when Dicey thinks about hard it must have been for their mother to want to take care of her children when she was unable to do so, she quickly decides that "imagination doesn't do any good" and begins to plan a new strategy for getting money and food. Or, after they recover emotionally from one of many setbacks, Dicey consoles herself that they "had money and a map, their stomachs were full—it wasn't a bad way to begin" the rest of the journey (85). What is most important is that they are "runaways to, not just runaways" (49). The kids have a destination, which means that they are moving toward their future, not running away from their past. Dicey, too, has goals: to keep her family together and find them a permanent home.
Along the way, though, Dicey will change her mind about what kind of home she really wants. A recurring motif in the novel is introduced by an epitaph Dicey sees, which reads: "Home is the hunter, home from the hill, and the sailor home from the sea" (85). At first, Dicey is chilled by this stoic commentary on life and home, but she decides that "she wouldn't mind having this poem on her tombstone, now that she thought about it. She was the hunter and the sailor, and she guessed dead people did lie quietly in their graves" (85-6). This acceptance of the inevitable will change as she moves through her journey, however, and she eventually abandons the notion of home as merely a final resting place.
After their difficult trip, the children eventually get to Bridgeport, at what they think is their Aunt Cilla's house. Their aunt has died, however, and the house, which isn't as grand nor as near the ocean as Dicey had imagined, is now occupied by Cousin Eunice, who thinks of the children as an unwelcome but necessary Christian burden. Not surprisingly, Dicey soon decides that this sterile and unwelcoming place cannot be their permanent home. Something in Aunt Cilla's house "make[s] Dicey's brain slow down," perhaps because of "the routine of every day," or simply fatigue, or "maybe it was that nothing seemed to happen, except the same thing happening over and over again" (134). Two things jolt Dicey out of the lethargy that has overwhelmed her at Cousin Eunice's: her (very legitimate) fear that the family will be split up and her new job washing windows. As is always the case for Dicey, "having money made a difference." It "woke her up" and makes her "feel like her old self again" (141). For Dicey, fear is her driving force, and money is her fuel.
After Dicey has accumulated enough cash, the children decide to leave Cousin Eunice's and head south toward the home of their newly-discovered grandmother in Crisfield, Maryland. Dicey muses about home once again, thinking that perhaps "there could be no home for the Tillermans." If they were looking for a place to be "home free," then Cousin Eunice's clearly wasn't the place. It was "expensive," Dicey says. "The price ways always remembering to be grateful" (168). Dicey's expectations about home have been lowered by the disappointment of Cousin Eunice's house. Now she "wanted only a place where the Tillermans could be themselves and do what was good for them" (168).
She discovers on the way to Crisfield that perhaps they don't need to find a home: maybe they could "sail along, deeming, not caring where they were going or when they would get there or what they would do there" (199). In fact, she comes to believe, after their single encounter with a truly malevolent adult, that "[e]very house was a secret place, a fortress, within which anything might be going on. Every house was perhaps a trap" (226). Instead of falling into a trap, Dicey thinks that she might prefer the life of perpetual travel. After a brief respite in a traveling circus, for example, Dicey feels peaceful: "Contentment was too small a word for what Dicey was feeling. They had food and a warm place to sleep, and Dicey had money in her pocket. They were traveling and had purpose and destination, but no conclusion. Dicey had nothing to worry about" (235). Although she may prefer "purpose and destination, but no conclusion," Dicey is driven to complete her journey and find her family a home.
Finding a home with their grandmother proves complicated, though, as their grandmother has her own troubles and doesn't want to take on those of the rest of the Tillermans. Still, Dicey stubbornly insists: "Here was the place, a farm with plenty of room and plenty of work for them to do, and the bay just beyond the marshes, and a sailboat in the barn. She wasn't about to let this grandmother keep them from it" (261). Her grandmother, while stubborn herself, doesn't know "the kind of thinking and planning Dicey could do" (262). Although Dicey is worried briefly about whether or not she can give her siblings a home and keep their spirits strong, she comes to believe that they are at home with their grandmother and notices "a warm feeling in her stomach, as if she had swallowed sunshine" (299). When her grandmother asks her at the end of the novel is she is ready to go home, Dicey says "ready" (312). In much the same way as Gilly accepts the home she hadn't expected, so Dicey is ready, at last, to settle down.
Like Tyler, who has always maintained that she is more interested in what happens after the happily ever after, Voigt is not content to end Dicey's story with her homecoming. Dicey's Song begins with what Voigt has called a "killer first line" (Reid 7), which she fought to keep in the novel:
And they lived happily ever after.
Not the Tillermans. Dicey thought. That wasn't the way things went for the Tillermans, ever.
Still, Dicey isn't going to let that "get her down," since "that was what happened to Momma" (1). Even though her family may not live happily every after, Dicey is determined to be positive, or at least stoic. This doesn't mean that it will be easy sailing, though. Throughout this novel, Dicey, who is settled with the kids on Gram's farm, struggles with letting go of her responsibilities.
Although Gram tells her that she's "not the only one responsible," Dicey finds it difficult trying to "take a rest" (21). She worries that her family is "turning away from her" (73), but she realizes that "holding on was time consuming," especially if one is trying to hold onto things that are pulling in different directions. In her short life, Dicey has gone from child, to adult, to parent, having to deal first with the responsibility of children and then with the burden of their increasing independence, all before she learns to drive.
Not surprisingly, the home/harbor motif recurs, although subtly changed. Dicey now feels as if she is "sitting at anchor." Still, although it is "good to come to rest," Dicey recognizes that "a boat at anchor wasn't like a boat at seat" (202). Dicey knows that she has the best of both worlds: she has the freedom of the boat and the security of the anchor. The possibility for change is always there, too. "Furled sails were just waiting to be raised, when the sailor chose to head out again," she thinks, speculating that maybe nothing was as permanent as it might seem (202).
At the end of the novel, Dicey revises her definition of home, family, and identity even further. Confused about whether or not she should contact her mother's brother to fill in the missing pieces about her history, Dicey realizes that she has to accept a certain amount of uncertainty in her life. This new confusion, she says is "like a windy storm," but she decides (like Jo in The Cheer Leader) that she might as well get used to it, even come to enjoy it, since it isn't going to go away (210-11). Dicey has gone from a feeling lost without a home port, to not wanting a permanent home, to finding one that offers both freedom and stability, to discovering that confusion, those story seas, is probably a "permanent condition." As Dorothy Clark puts it, "Dicey expands upon the epitaph Home Is the Sailor, transforming it from a reference to permanence and death to one of change and life" (196).
In all of her seven novels about the Tillermans, "Voigt describes how characters escape from damaged relationships by reaching out beyond themselves, holding on to the nature strengths of familial bonds, and finally letting go of ties that imprison" (Reid 31). In the novels that feature her, particularly Homecoming and Dicey's Song, Dicey grows to a young woman who has perhaps matured before her time, but who has, through the help of family, friends, and her own determined character, gotten everyone, including herself, into safe harbor.
1. For an elaboration of the ways in which Voigt manipulates traditional conventions surrounding the family, see Clark 198-200.
2. For a fascinating article on the ways in which Homecoming rewrites the traditional orphan story, See Clark. James Henke and Gloria Jameson discuss the ways in Voigt uses Greek myths in order to transform a realistic (and rather grim) narrative into something more profound. For another discussion of Voigt's use of myth, see Jamison and Wolf.
Jaime Hylton (essay date fall 2005)
SOURCE: Hylton, Jaime. "Exploring the ‘Academic Side’ of Cynthia Voigt." ALAN Review 33, no. 1 (fall 2005): 50-5.
[In the following essay, Hylton proposes that Voigt's young adult canon is deserving of greater critical attention as it withstands the rigors of academic analysis through its inclusion of mythic allusion, literary homage, and adept utilization of the fairy tale tradition.]
Over the past twenty-four years, author Cynthia Voigt has published twenty-seven books for readers ranging in age from preschool (The Rosie Stories ) through college (Tell Me If the Lovers are Losers ) to adult (Glass Mountain ). She has experimented with different genres, including the fantasy-adventure "Kingdom" series, the Tillerman family saga, historical fiction (David and Jonathan and Tree by Leaf ), and two mysteries (the gothic The Callender Papers and the contemporary The Vandemark Mummy ). She has addressed issues running the gamut from elementary and middle school friendship/peer relationships (the "Bad Girls" series) to racial and ethnic stereotyping (Come a Stranger and David and Jonathan ) to learning to cope with a physical disability (Izzy, Willy-Nilly ) and surviving sexual abuse (When She Hollers ). Finally, she has successfully broken some common "rules" for young adult (YA) books; for example, although the average YA novel contains from 125 to 250 pages, Seventeen against the Dealer and The Wings of a Falcon run well over 300 and 400 pages, respectively.
After nearly a quarter of a century, every book that Voigt has published is still in print. To what can the endurance of her work be attributed? Certainly, her novels are peopled with realistic teen protagonists, and their themes are among those that interest adolescent and YA readers: relationships with parents, siblings, and friends; loneliness, self-isolation, and popularity; meeting obligations and keeping promises; understanding and being understood; self-respect and respect for others, particularly valuing individual differences; the insidious nature of rumor; masking one's thoughts and feelings to stay "safe"; and discovering one's rightful place in the world. Voigt also tackles important life issues in ways such that young adults can learn about and understand them: slavery (Come a Stranger ) and the underground railway (Building Blocks ); the Holocaust (David and Jonathan); conscientious objection (The Callender Papers ) and the pain and grief precipitated by war (Tree by Leaf, The Runner ); fate and free will (On Fortune's Wheel, Building Blocks ); coping with the death of a friend (Tell Me If the Lovers are Losers ) or family member (Dicey's Song and The Runner ); and divorce (Bad, Badder, Baddest ). There is a richness to her work that transcends topical stories with teen-oriented, identity-focused themes. I believe that her stories have maintained their appeal because they are skillfully crafted and highly literate. By this I mean that they are suffused with allegory, literary allusion, classical mythology, and traditional folk and fairy tales.
Surprisingly, although Voigt's novels have been positively reviewed and well received by readers, and despite the fact that she has won a Newbery Medal, an Edgar, and the Margaret A. Edwards Award, there is very little critical analysis of her work. This is unexpected, given that it withstands literary analysis well, whether the criticism be "new," historical, archetypal, historical, psychoanalytical, or even feminist. (Although Voigt has disavowed being a feminist in several interviews, there is no denying the independent natures of the majority of her female characters, most notably Dicey [Homecoming, Dicey's Song, Seventeen against the Dealer ], Mina (Dicey's Song and Come a Stranger ], Gwyn [Jackaroo ], Beriel [Elske ], and, of course, the self-proclaimed feminist, Althea [The Vandemark Mummy ].)
Because the theme of this issue of The ALAN Review lends itself so readily to an overview, I will not be dealing in great detail with any single Voigt novel. Neither will I exhaust the topic of Voigt's use of archetypal patterns by cataloguing every instance in each of her twenty-four adolescent/YA novels. My purpose here, rather, is to lead the reader back to Cynthia Voigt's work with a new eye by providing several well-chosen examples to serve as evidence of the broad scope of Voigt's "academic side" (Reid 111).
Parable is the allegorical method of choice in David and Jonathan. In an ongoing game of intellectual one-upmanship over his friend Henry, to make his points, Jon will recite Biblical and Talmudic parables and, when it suits him, create parables of his own.
However, allegory most often takes the form of metaphor in Voigt's novels. One method with which she is very effective is in the creation of landscapes that echo story development. In The Callender Papers, for example, when Enoch Callender is seemingly confiding in Jean in order to enlighten her about the Callender family history, Jean says, "The river ran beside us, going in the opposite direction. As we went uphill, great boulders began to appear, as if they had forced their way up through concealing earth, like the earth's secrets forcing their way into daylight" (55). Of course, Jean's confidence in Enoch at this point in the story is misplaced, as she later learns when the truth of the family's secrets is revealed. Tree by Leaf is particularly atmospheric. The peninsula bequeathed to Clothilde by her great aunt is more than her "future" (7)—it is her literal present. Being of an independent nature, she does not follow the dirt road that runs beside the fields; rather, she "prefer[s] her own path" (3). When she is confused, we find her walking through dense fog (106), and when she is angry, a dark wind blows at her back (175). When James and Sammy are searching for their father in Sons from Afar, James's disappointment is complemented by a gray and heavy sky (120) and, later, Sammy's contentment by a rocking boat and a "blanket" of warm air (241).
Voigt is particularly skillful with extended metaphor. As metaphors for life, she uses sailing in Homecoming, the juxtaposition of land and ocean in Dicey's Song, and cross-country track in The Runner. However, in no novel is she more successful with this technique than in A Solitary Blue, from the point early in the novel when Jeff—who is feeling alienated from his father—catches a glimpse of the solitary blue heron "half-hidden in the pale marsh grass" (73) to the end of the novel when he realizes that, although he does not always understand his mother's or father's actions, both are a part of who he is, and "even the blue herons nested together in colonies, all of them together" (306).
References to specific poems, plays, and books flow through all of Voigt's YA novels, and always with purpose. For example, when Gram is recovering from pneumonia in Seventeen against the Dealer, the final book of the Tillerman series, she asks Dicey for a copy of David Copperfield to read. For David Copperfield, the two most important developmental constants of childhood—home and family—have been subject to repeated change. So, too, have they been for Dicey. Like David when he becomes an adult, Dicey (now 21 years old) is making choices for herself which frequently are not wise ones. Just as David leaves Agnes in order to pursue his ambition to become a writer, Dicey distances herself from Jeff and focuses all of her energies on becoming a boat builder. There are multiple references to literature throughout the Tillerman saga, primarily due to Dicey's brother James, who is the studious one of the four Tillerman children. In Sons from Afar, the novel in which James plays the largest role, he struggles to discover/establish his own identity, in large part through his attempt to learn about his father, who left the family when James was a young child. In this novel, we find allusions to Shakespeare's Macbeth, The Tempest, and Hamlet; Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea; Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince; and Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus—all woven carefully into the plot. However, Sons from Afar does not meet David and Jonathan when it comes to erudition. In the latter, the reader encounters lines of poetry by Emily Dickinson (although not quoted precisely, as is occasionally, and deliberately, Jon's wont) Keats, Noyes, Emerson, T. S. Eliot, and MacLeish; Latin and Italian quotations; references to the Talmud; oblique references to Shakespearean characters; and direct references to works by Jane Austen, Camus, Kafka, Kipling, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Plutarch, Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thurber, and Hemingway.
Sometimes, a specific piece will serve as a controlling metaphor for an entire novel. This is the case in Tell Me If the Lovers are Losers, a line taken directly from the poem "Cool Tombs." In that poem, Sandburg writes of Lincoln, Grant, and Pocahontas and notes that they will remember nothing of their lives "in the dust, in the cool tombs." In Voigt's novel, Niki and Ann's roommate, Hildy, is killed, and Niki says, "Why bother? It all comes to the same thing at the end. We all die" (176). Ann rejects this view. In his last stanza, Sandburg proposes love as, perhaps, the one meaningful thing we have to sustain us in life; Ann opts for living well and striving for excellence. In either case, the key is that, as Miss Dennis sums up near the end of the novel, "We go on in the hope that [what we do in life] does matter" (185).
I should note here that Voigt does not confine her literary references only to the "Great Books written by dead white men." Although her later novels are more liberally populated with the names of television programs, movies, and pop icons than with literary references, the last are still to be found. In addition to Dickens and Shakespeare in Izzy, Willy-Nilly, the reader also encounters Emily Dickinson and Judy Blume. In Bad Girls, Mikey has just finished the latest book by Virginia Hamilton, and Althea, from The Vandemark Mummy, is a self-taught expert on Sappho.
Egyptian mythology undergirds The Vandemark Mummy, but generally Voigt employs classical Greek and Roman myths as touchstones. On its surface, the most obvious use of such a mythological model among Voigt's novels is Orfe, based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this novel, the genders have been reversed, i.e., Orfe is the singer who attempts to save Yuri, the man she loves—in this case from his dependence on drugs. Directly after their wedding, Yuri is given a piece of cake laced with drugs and follows some old "friends" back to their house. Although Orfe goes to the house in an attempt to save him, he does not follow her out. Like Orpheus, she dies, broken-hearted. This myth is used more subtly in other Voigt novels, as music frequently is a character's way of attracting, comforting, and even retaining strangers. In A Solitary Blue, for example, Jeff is unable to gain Dicey's attention until he begins playing a song on his guitar. She turns in his direction, seeming to see him for the first time, "as if the music were some kind of string winding around the long legs" (221).
Another myth that appears in more than one of her novels is the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Orfe writes and performs a song named "Icarus," in which her back-up singers echo "Up, High, … like birds flying up into the crown of the sky … " (112). In Sons from Afar, when James is trying to convince his brother to accompany him in his search for their father, he tells Sammy the story of Daedalus, Icarus, and the feathers held together with wax. The point he tries to make to Sammy is that, if Icarus had listened to his father, he would not have tumbled from the sky. James is feeling the lack of having grown up with a father, and the narrator tells us, "Sometimes, what really scared James was the sense that he was being blown along on some wind, and he couldn't do anything about it" (14).
Quite probably, Voigt's quintessential use of a model from Greek mythology is the myth of Odysseus in Homecoming. On this subject, some critical writing has been done. Carol Hurst's commentary on the book is typical of that of most reviewers when she writes that the novel is an odyssey the main theme of which is family ties (1). James Henke goes into greater depth, actually pinpointing parallels between books IX, X, and XIX of The Odyssey and specific pages/chapters of Homecoming. Interestingly, once again Voigt has given the male role in the myth to a female protagonist. As Henke and Jameson point out, Dicey is a modern Odysseus.
One of the activities that I have done with students in my adolescent and young adult literature class is to follow the course of a particular protagonist through a novel comparing events as we go to the characteristics of the classic hero's quest. (Joseph Campbell writes most eloquently about the journey of the hero in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Peter Stillman distills this information handily for teaching purposes in Introduction to Myth.) Homecoming is a natural choice for this exercise, of course, but it is also fun and instructive with less obvious selections like The Callender Papers or Izzy, Willy-Nilly. Then, of course, there is Voigt's deliberate rendering of the quest, The Wings of a Falcon —part three of her Kingdom series, itself a real departure from the rest of her work. Classified on most booklists as "fantasy," "adventure," and even "science fiction," the four-part series is a stunning work of political and social commentary in which the question of the relative power of cultural tradition versus law predominates.
Traditional Folk and Fairy Tales
In addition to the heroic aspects in the Kingdom books, there are two primary folk tales underlying the series—the legend of Robin Hood (presented in most detail in Jackaroo but reappearing throughout) and the legend of King Arthur (appearing most clearly in The Wings of a Falcon ). Some have taken exception to Voigt's reenvisioning of these legends, but I think they have missed an important point: one of the overarching themes of the series is how much stories change in the telling over time.
Although the Kingdom series is a good place to start when looking for folk and fairy tale influences in Voigt's writing, they appear, like the literary and the mythological, throughout her work. In Building Blocks, for example, Brann conjures up the tale of King Arthur and Excalibur to give him the courage to "grab onto his fate" (74). Later in the novel, when he awakens from a long sleep, his father says to him, "I thought you'd sleep forever … like King Arthur under the hill. To be awakened in time of need" (112-13).
Fairy tale references, too, abound. Even the grim When She Hollers includes a reference to "Rumpelstiltskin," as Tish struggles to put a name to what her stepfather has been doing to her. In Orfe, in an early exchange between Orfe and her elementary school classmate (and, in adult life, close friend), Enny, "The Princess and the Frog" foreshadows coming events. Enny insists that if one makes a promise (as the Prin- cess does to the frog), she is obliged to keep it. (Keeping promises is a fundamental theme in Voigt's work, from the early Tillerman saga to the most recent Bad Girls series.) Orfe argues that if she had a chance at "the perfect thing," she would "promise anything to get it back" (10), and so she does when she finds a perfect love with Yuri. In her wedding vows, she promises herself, her heart and her work, to him; when she feels that he must be retrieved from the drug users' house, others try to dissuade her, but Enny understands: "If there is someone like Yuri in your life, the only sensible line of action is to do everything you can to keep him or get him back. Anything else is … cowardice or a failure of love" (101). Voigt uses "Hansel and Gretel" in a similar way in Homecoming. In the first few pages, while the Tillerman children wait in the car for their mother to return, Dicey asks James to tell a story to Sammy and Maybeth. When he cannot think of one, she suggests "Hansel and Gretel." Soon thereafter, the reader realizes that Momma is not coming back for them, and their journey to find a home begins. (See Henke's article, mentioned earlier, for some very specific parallels, including the suggestion that Gram is the fairy tale's Wicked Witch.) Two recurring fairy tales for Voigt are "Snow White" and "Beauty and the Beast." Mina (a "colored" character in the Tillerman books) is cast as the wicked witch in "Snow White." In Tree by Leaf, Clothilde recalls the tale of "Beauty and the Beast" as she ponders a way to help her father, who has returned from World War I frighteningly disfigured, rejoin the family in the main house.
Recommendations for Using Voigt's Novels in the Classroom
Cynthia Voigt's literary skill in "weaving modern realism in (familiar) archetypal patterns" (Jameson 3) results in characters and stories that abide in readers' memories. Additionally, a bridge is created between YA and classic literature. Four years ago, Don Gallo wrote a thought-provoking article for the English Journal entitled "How Classics Create an Aliterate Society." In that article, he argues that the teaching of classic literature to high school students actually may discourage them from reading and that teachers ought to use young adult literature to engage their students. Most of us who have taught or are teaching English in the secondary schools will agree that it is neither realistic nor feasible to expect that we can or will jettison the classics from our classrooms. (Even Gallo admits this at the end of his article.) However, given that Voigt's novels deal with concerns and themes of interest to adolescent and young adult readers coupled with classic elements, we certainly can follow Herz's (with Gallo) and Kaywell et al.'s leads and pair them with classic literature to foster and enhance students' interest in and understanding of works we likely will continue to ask them to read. Gallo writes, "Everyone knows there are easy teen novels for younger and less able readers, but there are also some superb novels in this genre that are more complex—sophisticated enough for even AP readers" (36). He offers as examples books by Robert Cormier, M. E. Kerr, Chris Crutcher, and Chris Lynch. To that list, I am adding Cynthia Voigt.
Herz and Gallo make some recommendations for pairing Voigt novels with other works treating common themes. In Kaywell's series, there are specific titles suggested, including the pairing of Dicey's Song with The Awakening (Carroll) or Oliver Twist (Monseau); Homecoming with The Odyssey (Ericson) or Oliver Twist (Monseau); Izzy, Willy-Nilly with The Miracle Worker (Kelley); The Runner with Death of a Salesman (Cline); and A Solitary Blue with Our Town (Ericson). I would like to suggest an additional seven possible pairings: Tell Me If the Lovers are Losers with King Lear; Seventeen against the Dealer with The Prince; The Callender Papers with Jane Eyre; Come a Stranger with To Kill a Mockingbird; The Wings of a Falcon with Macbeth; Elske with Antigone; and Sons from Afar with Hamlet.
In Presenting Cynthia Voigt, Suzanne Reid merely scratches the surface when she proffers: "The academic side of Voigt is evident not only in her favorable portrayal of characters with curious minds but also in her many literary allusions, ranging from Shakespeare's plays and The Odyssey to fairy tales like ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ and ‘The Frog Prince’" (111). I have offered here multiple examples to show that, in her use of allegory, allusion, mythology, and tale, Voigt's academic side in fact pervades her adolescent and YA novels. It is this quality that makes Cynthia Voigt, as Ken Donelson told Jim Blasingame in a 2003 interview, one of a handful of writers who "have provided us with books, some year after year, that are always fresh and always significant" (605).
Blasingame, James. "An Interview with Ken Donelson." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 46.7 (2003): 604-505.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1968.
Carroll, Pamela Sissi. "The Awakening and Young Adult Literature: Seeking Self-Identity in Many Ways and in Many Cultures." Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, vol. 2. Ed. Joan F. Kaywell. Norwood: Christopher Gordon Publishers, Inc., 1995. 69-87.
Cline, Ruth. "Family Relationships as Found in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Cynthia Voigt's The Runner." Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, vol. 1. Ed. Joan F. Kaywell. Norwood: Christopher Gordon Publishers, Inc., 1993. 79-91.
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. London: Penguin Classics. 1997.
Ericson, Bonnie O. "Heroes and Journeys in The Odyssey and Several Works of Young Adult Literature." Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, vol. 2. Ed. Joan F. Kaywell. Norwood: Christopher Gordon Publishers, Inc., 1995. 1-20.
———. "What Life's All About: Group Reading of Selected Adolescent Literature and Thornton Wilder's Our Town." Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, vol. 4. Ed. Joan F. Kaywell. Norwood: Christopher Gordon Publishers, Inc., 2000. 1-12.
Gallo, Donald R. "How Classics Create an Aliterate Society." English Journal 90.3 (2001): 33-39.
Henke, James T. "Dicey, Odysseus, and Hansel and Gretel: The Lost Children in Voigt's Homecoming." Children's Literature in Education (Spring 1985): 45-52.
Herz, Sarah K., and Donald R. Gallo. From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges between Young Adult Literature and the Classics. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Hurst, Carol. Homecoming Review. Online. Internet Explorer. 1999. Available: http://www.carolhurst.com/titles/homecoming/html.
Jameson, Gloria. "The Triumph of the Spirit in Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming, Dicey's Song, and A Solitary Blue." Triumphs of the Spirit in Children's Literature. Eds. Francelia Butler and Richard Rotert. Hamden, CT: Library Professional Publication. 1986. 3-14.
Kelley, Patricia P. "The Miracle Worker and Young Adult Literature about Disabilities." Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, vol. 2. Ed. Joan F. Kaywell. Norwood: Christopher Gordon Publishers, Inc. 1995. 175-185.
Monseau, Virginia R. "Oliver Twist and the Orphans of Young Adult Literature." Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, vol. 4. Ed. Joan F. Kaywell. Norwood: Christopher Gordon Publishers, Inc. 2000. 13-30.
Reid, Suzanne E. Presenting Cynthia Voigt. New York: Twayne. 1995.
Sandburg, Carl. "Cool Tombs." Cornhuskers. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 1918.
Stillman, Peter. Introduction to Myth. Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden Book Company, Inc. 1977.
Voigt, Cynthia. Bad, Badder, Baddest. New York: Scholastic. 1997.
———. Bad Girls. New York: Scholastic. 1996.
———. Bad Girls in Love. New York: Atheneum. 2002.
———. Building Blocks. New York: Scholastic. 1984.
———. The Callender Papers. New York: Fawcett Juniper. 1983.
———. Come a Stranger. New York: Fawcett Juniper. 1986.
———. David and Jonathan. New York: Scholastic. 1992.
———. Dicey's Song. New York: Ballantine. 1982.
———. Elske. New York: Atheneum. 1999.
———. Glass Mountain. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1991.
———. Homecoming. New York: Fawcett Juniper. 1981.
———. It's Not Easy Being Bad. New York: Aladdin. 2002.
———. Izzy, Willy-Nilly. New York: Aladdin: 1995.
———. Jackaroo. New York: Fawcett Juniper. 1985.
———. On Fortune's Wheel. New York: Fawcett Juniper. 1990.
———. Orfe. New York: Scholastic. 1992.
———. The Rosie Stories. New York: Holiday House, Inc. 2003.
———. The Runner. New York: Fawcett Juniper. 1985.
———. Seventeen against the Dealer. New York: Simon Pulse. 2002.
———. A Solitary Blue. New York. Scholastic. 1983.
———. Sons from Afar. New York: Fawcett Juniper. 1987.
———. Tell Me If the Lovers are Losers. New York: Fawcett Juniper. 1982.
———. Tree by Leaf. New York: Aladdin. 1988.
———. The Vandemark Mummy. New York. Aladdin. 1991.
———. When She Hollers. New York: Scholastic. 1994.
———. The Wings of a Falcon. New York: Scholastic. 1993.
Dorothy G. Clark (essay date winter 2000-2001)
SOURCE: Clark, Dorothy G. "Edging toward Bethlehem: Rewriting the Myth of Childhood in Voigt's Homecoming." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 25, no. 4 (winter 2000-2001): 191-202.
[In the following essay, Clark ascribes a feminist methodology to Voigt's Homecoming in her examination of thematic issues of motherhood, family, adolescence, and the creation of a "new egalitarian family model."]
Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming has all the trappings of a traditional orphan's tale. Four abandoned children struggle to survive a journey in search of a home. Their travels take them from the parking lot of an anonymous mall in Provincetown on Cape Cod, to Maryland, where—after many adventures and much self-discovery—they finally find their old Gram living on a farm. But Homecoming is anything but the sentimental, familiar tale this storyline suggests and in no way returns the children to anything resembling a traditional concept of home. Voigt appropriates this familiar narrative in order to tell a very different story. Combining her feminist re-vision of this narrative with postmodern (re)conceptions of home, Voigt subverts the Romantic ideal of childhood implicit in the orphan tale to give us reconstructed definitions of childhood, family, and mothering.
To this end, Homecoming presents a critique of patriarchal family models and of the possibility of mothering in a patriarchal world. This feminist critique is linked to and inseparable from Voigt's interrogation of the Romantic or idealized construction of childhood—especially its use in the orphan tales of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.1 In one analysis of orphan novels, Claudia Mills identifies the intimate relationship between the orphan genre of this period and the Romantic construction of childhood: "[In these novels] the heroine is immediately recognizable as a literary type, the Romantic Child" (228).2 And an effect of these stories is that "orphan children have been used to dramatize the perils and possibilities of childhood" for, "among children, who is more insecure and isolated, frightened and bewildered, vulnerable and potentially violated, than the orphan?"(227). Voigt participates in this tradition. She uses the conventions of both the Romantic idea of the child and the orphan tale to reveal the condition of contemporary childhood and to link that condition to patriarchal society.
Voigt reinscribes these conventions into a new vision in which the older conventions of the Romantic child and the orphan tale are retained but transformed. The effect is a powerful contemporary fable that directly addresses a crisis in—or revaluation of—the structure of the family, the meaning of home, and the concept of an idealized childhood. I argue that Homecoming offers a postmodern feminist vision that gestures toward the possibility of a new egalitarian family model, but one that is created by the children themselves such that hierarchical distinctions between children and adults dissolve, and mothering itself is radically reconceived. I present this argument through four interrelated themes: Voigt's self-conscious use of the orphan tale and the concept of a Romantic or idealized childhood; her troping of these conventions to illustrate the destabilizing of our idealization of childhood; her restructuring of the notions of home, family, and motherhood; and last, her vision of a new, post-patriarchal family structure.
Ideal Orphans, Ideal Childhood, and Its Crisis
The traditional orphan tale's marriage of the Romantic Child with idealized stories of children who, because they are virtuous, ultimately gain the sanctuary of home was one social response to the nineteenth century's industrial blight and real plight of children.3 As Richard Flynn comments: "The idea of the child and the ideal of the child have, since their simultaneous invention, been inseparable…. [Consequently], [o]ur tendency to view childhood as an idea or ideal makes it difficult to see childhood as lived experience" (105). Voigt, however, rewrites the orphan tale to reveal the bankruptcy of its transparent patriarchal purpose. As James Holt McGavran notes of the traditional tale, the child (most often a female) is cast out from the family in order to be brought back; McGavran identifies this as a common movement for girls in literature: girls move from home, to adventure, to (re)domestication (133). The child is reintegrated into a patriarchal family structure without comment on the structure itself. McGavran captures the genre's implicit message: "Girls, head South; come home where it's warm; give in to the patriarchal system that shelters you but simultaneously grips your bodies and minds in a vise of domesticity; find meaning in home, family, and what the feminist psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow has defined as the reproduction of mothering" (137).4 McGavran's caustic description all too accurately describes the path of the genre's protagonists. Whether it is Ellen in Wide Wide World or the protagonists of Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna, the message is clear: Being an orphan is a bad thing; being part of the traditional family structure is not.
In Homecoming, however, the Tillerman children find not only that there is no warmth in the traditional family structure, but that the patriarchal system also offers, in total, no shelter. Voigt critiques the assumption that father-centered families and male-centered institutions do in fact take care of their own, which they demonstrably do not. From the inception of the Tillermans' journey, it becomes quite clear that the patriarchal structure does not particularly want the Tillerman children back, for none of the traditional agencies of patriarchy provide protection: not the mall's security guard, Dicey's first encounter with what should have been protective patriarchal authority, or later the Church, whose so-called protection the children understand to be destructive of their familial integrity. They are truly alone and homeless. In contrast to the traditional orphan tale, these children come to the realization that the structure from which they have been cast might not be what they want. The children's return to family life becomes a rewriting of the power relations and membership in the family to which they are returning. They cease being orphans, but in the process they also cease being functions of the patriarchal family hierarchy as well. They create their own safety and home in a manner that turns the orphan tale on its head, radically rewriting it so that, in effect, being an orphan is not a bad thing while being in a traditional family structure is.
Voigt engineers her feminist and postmodern revision of the orphan tale through her use and reworking of the "Romantic Child" that lies at its heart. As Mitzi Myers cautions, since this concept is "our foundational fiction, our originary myth," it is difficult "to distance ourselves from the ‘always already’ saidness of the Romantic literary discourse on childhood" (45). Voigt's postmodern use of this construct through the orphan tale creates a necessary distance—that opening which allows Voigt to explore the suspicion central to her enterprise that this "foundational fiction" bolsters patriarchal hegemony and is not good for the children of her narrative (if not for all children). It is the characters, operating within the strictures of the tale and its imaginary world, who begin to show that form's political limitations and anti-child commitments. However, we will see that although Voigt subverts the construction of an idealized childhood, she does not completely reject it. Voigt admires certain characteristics of the Romantic Child and uses them, albeit in a troped way, to get her "children" safely "home."
But what are the characteristics of the Romantic or Ideal Child? Which features does Voigt subvert? Which does she retain, but twist to her own purposes? I want to review this idea from three slightly different but complementary angles: First, Alan Richardson provides a review of its philosophical and literary roots as he demonstrates that this complex construction is both repressive and protective; second, Claudia Mills isolates the particular traits of the Romantic child that make up the infrastructure of nineteenth- and twentieth-century orphan literature; and finally, Anne Higonnet's history of idealized childhood through visual representations further explains some of the features of this ideal. Moreover, Higonnet traces the origins of the idealization and defines how the concept is now in crisis.
Richardson's historical review in "Romanticism and the End of Childhood" argues of the Romantic child that its "popularized and somewhat saccharine form … [helped] advance liberal democratic reforms in relation to child labor and welfare" (29). This "saccharine form" resulted from the "literary ‘sentimentalizing’ of childhood" through the writings of the Romantics, particularly Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb, and DeQuincy (25). Richardson grounds the emergence of this "idea of the child" in a "somewhat incoherent, intermingling" of sources: "the sentimentalism of eighteenth-century verse, the transcendentalism of Vaughan, a Lockean emphasis on the child's malleability, and a Rousseauvian faith in original innocence and ‘natural’ principles of growth" (25). To this he adds, citing the scholarship of Barbara Garlitz, the powerful influence of Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode" which contributed "its image of the child as ‘Best Philosopher,’ fresh from a heavenly preexistence and ‘trailing clouds of glory,’" which along with the image of the "child of nature," functions "throughout nineteenth-century British culture as at once synecdoche and authority for the new conception of childhood" (25).
Richardson privileges freedom and innocence as the key features of this new conception. It is during this allegedly carefree period, in which the child is allowed to explore his or her world unfettered, that the child learns from benevolent nature, brings to the social arena its innate wisdom and flourishes in "its intellectual, ethical, and creative development" (26). This right to freedom is intimately connected to what is probably the predominant feature of Romantic childhood, its innocence. This Romantic construction of child was "relied upon and further varied throughout nineteenth-century children's literature both in Britain and America," thus shaping the popular image of the child (26). Although Richardson presents the problematics of this construction, he identifies its development coinciding with reforms for children and worries that its demise may bode ill for the "material, affective, and more basic cognitive needs" of children (37). Granting that Marxist and new historicist critiques of this sentimental concept have merit, Richardson makes a plausible case for the claim that the Romantic construction of the child is an idea that has served to protect children.
This vulnerability born of a belief in the child's prelapsarian innocence becomes even more apparent in the melding of the Romantic child with the orphan tale of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The intrinsic vulnerability of orphans combines with the implicit vulnerability of the Romantic child to create a literary type that has figured prominently in the popular conception of the ideal child. This era's orphan tale peoples our imaginations with stories starring the near-perfect child, whose goodness is only matched by a purity, innocence, and innate wisdom that redeems the errant souls of the fallen adults with whom she (it is usually a girl) comes in contact. As Mills shows, the genre distills and codifies the Romantic construction of the child into its most recognizable traits.
Mills fixes on three defining traits of the Romantic Child. Like Richardson, she identifies innocence at the heart of the Romantic construction of childhood. This innocence and incorruptibility makes itself known first through the child's relentless good cheer in the face of numerous obstacles (228). The second trait reflects the genre's reshaping of the Wordsworthian notion of the celestial child, "trailing clouds of glory," for the orphan's ability to maneuver the world untouched by its corruption is also a reflection of the child's perfection. Mills claims that these figures "exhibit no moral growth" because "they already represent a kind of moral perfection" (230). These morally perfect children are the conveyors of an innate Wisdom, the genre's equivalent to Wordsworth's "Best Philosopher." Last, these "Best Philosophers," these ideal children, become the redeemers of lost, unhappy adults (231). This constellation of traits—an incorruptible optimism, moral perfection, the incarnation of ideal goodness and wisdom that redeems errant adults—is generally associated with the prelapsarian innocence implicit in the Romantic idealization of the child.
In Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood, Higonnet furthers our understanding of how the innocence of children has been diffused into the popular culture and how it is now in crisis. An art historian, Higonnet shows that visual representations tell a story that supplements the accounts given by literary critics. Tracing the development of the idealized child (which she also calls the "Romantic Child") through visual images from the eighteenth century through the present, Higonnet shows how these representations make incarnate ideals of childhood innocence that have become part of our cultural imaginary and an integral part of all of our lives. Her study adds two important pieces that are particularly useful in reading Homecoming. First, she fleshes out the idea of innocence and shows how visual imagery contributed to its idealization. The prelapsarian innocence represented in orphan literature is depicted in visual representations as a sexual, social, and psychic innocence. These three areas are conveyed in images of children who appear both genderless and classless, as though the children have somehow been untouched by worldly experience of any kind. Higonnet also observes this idealization transmitted through images of children who—because their faces and eyes are averted from the viewer—seem absorbed in their own world of childhood. Their apparent distance contributes to their idealization by creating a sense of their "otherness"—which, as Richardson points out, has helped to protect children, but which has also had its dark side in the ways such "otherness" and ideality can (as both Richardson and Flynn point out) prevent us from seeing the "lived experiences" of children. Voigt, aware of both aspects of the idealization of childhood, uses her subversion of the ideal to reveal the declining condition of children in contemporary culture and the failure of the patriarchal structures that are supposed to care for them.
Higonnet's study presents a supplementary thesis that claims this idealized image is undergoing a "crisis," resulting from changes in our conception of children and childhood (192). Contemporary visual representations of children undercut the past idealization; they depict a more adultified (sometimes eroticized) child whose innocence is now blended with savvyness, into a form Higonnet calls the "knowing child" (12). Voigt's interrogation of the Romantic child leads to a similar reformulation, for we come finally to identify Dicey and her siblings as such "knowing children." In Homecoming the "old signs of childhood" haunt the text through Voigt's use of motifs associated with the orphan tale. These motifs signal the reader to expect an idealized child who, despite hardships, possesses an innocence that prevails in the end. Notwithstanding its very contemporary features—and even because of them—Homecoming 's rewriting of the orphan tale creates an illuminating double consciousness. Voigt's use of these literary conventions reminds us—as we read of the Tillermans—of the golden images of childhood. When we meet the Tillermans as abandoned, vulnerable, and innocent, we expect their innocence will triumph in the end, as it does in earlier tales of abandoned children. In stark contrast to these idealized images, however, the radically different situation of the Tillerman children, their marginalization and their desperate aloneness, point to the crisis in the contemporary perception of children and to the very different way contemporary children are represented. Voigt's postmodern use of the traditional orphan tale underlines that the culture that created the construct of innocent orphans values neither their innocence with all it represents nor their orphanhood.5 As a result, the Tillerman children must create their own narrative and, in effect, use their innocence and outsider status to make for themselves a world that rejects the old patriarchal one that has rejected them.
The Journey and Childhood's End
Homecoming 's most apparent appropriation and troping of conventions is the journey, the linear journey in search of a home.6 In Homecoming, however, this well-known motif functions more like the journey in Heart of Darkness; the children, like Marlow, are on a journey of truth that leads them to a multifaceted understanding of their origins. Before the children can find a home they must first learn the truth that has resulted in their homelessness, and they must also create a counter truth. (Re)finding their home only occurs after the "undoing" of what had been originally destructive. In the process, cherished notions of childhood, family, motherhood, home and the relationship of adult and child all must be subverted and reconfigured in ways that reaffirm them. The entire journey, in fact, functions to deconstruct the old order in preparation for the novel's final semi-Utopian, feminist vision.
Voigt interlaces the mythic framework of this journey with the motifs of the traditional orphan tale. Homecoming begins unsentimentally. The reader learns immediately of the crisis of the four homeless Tillerman children that initiates the journey controlling almost the entire novel. Voigt's mention of Hansel and Gretel within the first two pages strongly suggests her identification of the Tillermans' situation with traditional orphan stories.7 The familiar figure of the orphan signals the presence of the ideal child. Like the other perfect children of this genre, we expect the Tillermans to combine vulnerability with innocence, intuitive wisdom, and virtue so as to shine in spite of or because of their difficulties. But in Homecoming, Voigt uses these cues to suggest that the Tillerman children's condition is very different. The Tillermans are orphaned for complex reasons, so their situation does not fulfill readers' usual expectations. Unlike children in traditional orphan tales, the Tillerman children are desperately isolated. In the earlier orphan stories, the children's aloneness is in no way absolute. The world of these traditional orphans may be sad, but the reasons they are left alone are comprehensible within accepted categories of misfortune: their parents get sick or die or are too poor to tend them. But the orphans are not thrust out into a wide, wide world totally bereft. The children find help through a number of agencies that range from orphanages to relatives. Mary in The Secret Garden, Ellen in Wide Wide World, Heidi, Rebecca in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Pollyanna, for example, all find shelter with family. These orphans are rarely, if ever, left without adult aid, even if that adult is crabby or downright mean. Some semblance of community is there to offer children even minimal support, but it is nonetheless support. The children in Maria Edgeworth's "The Orphans" survive because of general and very specific community support. The narrative thus reflects the society's protective intent for these children.
In contrast, Voigt's narrative offers no such protection. The Tillermans have been failed by adults; their world lacks both traditional adult and community support. When we meet them, they have been abandoned by their mother, left alone in a green car in a parking lot in a mall. Unlike absent parents in traditional stories, their mother has neither died nor fallen ill. Instead, she has wandered off, left her children because she has gone mad. Through statements from the children, we learn that her madness has resulted from the hardship, heartache, and stress of being poor and a single mother. Isolated, abandoned first by their father, unaided by family, friends, or community, she succumbs to the burden of single parenthood and "gets lost" (42, 115). As Dicey explains to Maybeth:
I think she got so worried about so many things, about money and us, about what she could do to take care of us, about not being able to do anything to make things better—I think it all piled up inside her so that she just quit. She felt so sad and sorry then, and lost—remember how she'd go out and not come back for hours? I think she got lost outside those times, the way she was lost inside.
Homecoming 's initial chapters further illustrate the children's marginalized position through the absence of traditional community and adult resources. The obstacles—the antagonists—the children must overcome are adults, especially adults in positions of authority, who in earlier traditional stories would have been the children's guardians and benefactors. Instead, the Tillerman children find a hostile adult world. Voigt makes this very clear in Dicey's first encounter with a security guard at the mall, who serves as a symbol for the adult, patriarchal establishment. His initial reaction is not concern for her but suspicion that she is a vandal. By running away from him, Dicey shows traditional resourcefulness, but unlike her literary precursors, she has become for the reader an outsider, transformed in that moment from a child in desperate need to something quite different: an outlier, not a child in any idealized sense. From that initial encounter, the condition of all the Tillerman children changes. Chapter Two's fairytale image of the witch-like woman, scolding and exiling the children, further underlines their marginalization, "They turned their heads to watch as an energetic old woman came out, waving a broom over her head and shouting something … ‘Get out of here, get out’" (28). Swept to the outskirts of society, they will traverse the roadside margins as they journey in hopes of finding a traditional haven.
The children's encounter with others continues to underline their marginality. All traditional (i.e., patriarchal) representations of adult authority fail them. They have been failed by the educational and social services officials in their home town of Provincetown; at the mall, the security guard, who should have offered them safety, fails them; later, their cousin Eunice and the priest at Bridgeport—family and church—continue to fail them. The failure of adults to help them reaches an apotheosis in their encounter with Mr. Rudyard, a two-dimensional representation of patriarchal/capitalist exploitation and evil. Rudyard exploits the children's field labor and would have held them against their will possibly for darker purposes, except for Dicey's ingenuity in staging an escape. The only characters who provide aid are similarly marginalized or reside in a borderland that is not quite part of the adult mainstream. They include the young grocery clerk in the state park, who aids them after assessing they are on their own; the grandfather who gives them money, reflecting society's marginalization of the aged; the college boys who actually take them in and drive them to Bridgeport, and who reside in that borderland of the student; and finally, their only friends, the circus people. These people are probably the clearest example of a marginalized group in that they are outsiders to both traditional work and family structures. They save the children from Rudyard and drive them to their Gram's town.
The Tillerman children's marginal status reflects the continued crisis in society's perception of children and childhood in general. In a remarkable encounter with a runaway pair, Edie and Louis, who is a youth-philosopher, Dicey, James, and the reader learn about the legal and political conditions of contemporary childhood. Upon learning that they have fished illegally, Dicey realizes that "The whole world was arranged for people who had money—for adults who had money. The whole world was arranged against kids" (65). Louis underscores her awareness by telling them that "Kids have no legal rights at all…. Because parents own them…. Your parents can beat you, steal your money, decide not to take you to a doctor—anything they want" (66). This assessment of the political powerlessness of children evokes in James a devastating awareness, "Then the only person who will look out for me is myself" (66). Louis' "teachings" are more than the hyperbole of frustrated adolescence; he speaks a truth about children in general and about the alienation and powerlessness of the Tillerman children in particular: they are victims, politically powerless, and alone in a heartless world in which no adults can be trusted—even, or especially, parents.8
Voigt's destabilization of the orphan tale's icons reflects an accurate perception of contemporary childhood. For example, by immediately upsetting our idealization of motherhood, Homecoming forces us to attend to a new image of family and children. Depicted vividly for us is the terrible isolation of the contemporary family and poor, single mothers, the lack of a caring community, and the ultimate isolation and marginalization of children. Moreover, Homecoming 's initial urban landscape of parking lot and mall emblematizes the children's aloneness; the mall—our contemporary community square—is cold, fortress-like, inhuman: "The mall was built like a fortress around a huge, two-story enclosed street, where store succeeded store, as far as you could see…. Outside, beyond the covered sidewalk that ran like a moat around the huge building, lay the huge, gray parking lot, a no-man's-land of empty cars" (13). In this cold, alienated world, the only human warmth and comfort the children have comes from one another. In the contemporary world of Homecoming, children must become their own parents, and cross over into the world of adults, leaving no time for the carefree joy traditionally associated with idealized childhood.
The Dicey World of Childhood
In addition to pointing to the isolated and marginalized condition of contemporary children, Homecoming focuses the reader's attention on the crisis of idealized childhood particularly through Dicey's character and developmental process. Although she in some ways resembles the traditional female protagonists who take on parental roles (such as Mary in Edgeworth's "The Orphans") or resourceful, virtuous females (such as Heidi or Mary in The Secret Garden), what differentiates her from these earlier figures becomes itself a lesson about the powerful social changes Homecoming depicts. Adult failures prevent Dicey from being a child; for her, childhood, like her name, is dangerous, uncertain, chancy. She resides in a borderland, an unstable condition between the old, traditional construction of childhood and an emerging new one. This instability manifests itself in several critical ways.
First, and most obviously, Dicey's gender is fluid. Although this is a commonplace for feminist protagonists (Trites 11), Dicey's reasons for becoming a boy are traditionally female—she does so in order to protect herself and her siblings. As a boy she can best take care of the children, and "It's safer to be a boy than a girl…. People leave boys alone more" (53). But Dicey's character is anything but traditionally feminine. Her given name Dicey is itself trans/sexual, in no way a common girl's name or boy's name; she also is somewhat of a tomboy, a quality she relays to the college students Windy and Stewart, "And I lie. And I fight, but I'm not a jerk" (103). This purposeful blurring of gender allows Dicey to become genderless; neither boy nor girl, Dicey can become the voice of the child in general.
Second, in Dicey we see not only the blurring of genders, but also the blurring of the boundary between child and adult. At its most obvious, this crossover is a function of necessity. Dicey must become an adult in order to parent her siblings. From the novel's inception, Dicey is put in an adult position: she must make sense out of their situation, figure things out from the data, read both literal and metaphoric maps. Although we sense an innate wisdom in her (and the other children), this quality associated with the Romantic ideal gives way here to a savvyness, reasoning capacity, and later a shrewd business sense that suggests a knowingness we generally associate with adulthood. In one early moment in the first chapter, the adult positioning of Dicey is vividly clear as she and James—also wise beyond his ten years—sit in the front of their car, he fatherlike behind the wheel, she next to him, both struggling to figure out what is best to do for the family, the younger children sleeping in the back seat. The image suggests an emerging new family where children become their own parents. In this world where parents abrogate adult responsibilities, withdrawing into a childlike state, the children must become adultlike.
Dicey's and the children's adult behavior further subverts the Romantic Child when they must make morally ambiguous decisions. They steal and lie, a lot, but we accept these indiscretions because of their circumstances. They are hungry, abandoned, unaided, and betrayed by adults. Both the conditions creating this need and the acts of lying and stealing themselves subvert our sense of children's innocence, of that quality of moral perfection intrinsic to the idealized Romantic Child. This is a different kind of childhood—one in which street smarts and sophistication supplant the prelapsarian innocence of the idealized construction of childhood. The Tillermans' lying is a kind of resourcefulness to enable their journey home; yet Dicey and James are also self-conscious that what they are doing is wrong. "That would serve us right, wouldn't it?" (199).
Adding to the Tillermans' maturity that contrasts them to the Romantic child is their reflectiveness. When the Tillermans philosophize, they are far from Wordsworth's "Best Philosopher." James, the 10 year old, sounds like a modern Existentialist when, in response to Stewart's questions about stealing and morality, he says that these things do not matter, because "We all die anyway…. Nothing matters. There's nothing you can count on—except the speed of light. And dying" (106). But it is Dicey who is given the task of making sense of their condition, of reading the "maps"—both literal and figurative—as she guides them to safety. She becomes a kind of philosopher on the road, and her reflections are a critique on the conditions of childhood: if we no longer have family and home in any traditional way, can we still have childhood? Or, can the children themselves create a new idea of home and family?
"Home Is the Sailor"
What is a family? Where and what is home? These questions haunt the children's journey and form the stuff of Dicey's reflections. What the children seem to long for is a traditional idea of family and home, but for these children such a place exists only in dreams: "Dicey awoke from a dream about a big white house" (34). What the children have is quite different. They have become rootless, which is represented by their first "new" home: the family's green car. Like the car, they as a familial unit will be characterized by mobility, change, instability. Dicey begins a series of reflections on the nature of family that are informed by this instability. Her ruminations on home begin in a graveyard, a gesture to the sad reality that home has become a place of death and memory. Dicey's thoughts are initiated by her fascination with a gravestone inscription, "Home is the hunter, home from the hill, and the sailor home from the sea" (90). Dicey reasons the traditional idea of home into the grave, "As if to say that being dead was home…. [H]ome was the place where you finally stayed forever and ever. Then this person was home, and nobody would be truly home until he, or she, died…. Nobody could be home, really, until he was in his grave" (90). Dicey's reflections deconstruct the traditional idea of home and in a very real sense emancipate her. If home as a place of permanence can only mean death, then it isn't so bad to be adrift, to be in transit, to be journeying.
Dicey replaces the traditional idea of home with one that accounts for her family's condition and one that reflects modernist ideas. In Part II, these ideas are most fully articulated in Dicey's poetic and philosophical reflections on how families are like individual boats on the sea; Dicey expands upon the epitaph Home is the Sailor, transforming it from a reference to permanence and death to one of change and life:
A boat could be a home. The perfect home that could move around, a home that didn't close you in or tie you down; and a sailor would always be at home if he was on the sea.
Maybe life was like a sea, and all the people were like boats…. Or maybe each boat was a kind of family…. Everybody who was born was cast onto the sea. And the boats—they just went along as best they could, trying to find a harbor…. Couldn't you live your whole life without going into harbor? The land would catch you at the end. Home is the sailor. But until then, you could keep free. And even then, even when you died, you could die at sea and your body would roll with the underwater currents until your flesh peeled off and you were white bones rocking in the waves on the sandy bottom of the ocean. Always part of the changing.
(emphasis added, 203)
Dicey's idea suggests the world of Bergson's durée, of flux and change and of a decentered world of process.
Incorporating the images of home as car and boat, the circus becomes Homecoming 's fullest expression of the family as a unit without a center, without roots, and adrift, and, yet, working out. Voigt presents the circus as an ideal representation of this new concept of home. Here are a group of people who show the care and concern for each other (and the children) that we associate with family, and they are constantly on the move; as Dicey describes it, "They were traveling and had purpose and destination, but no conclusion" (240). This depiction recapitulates Dicey's earlier figure of family and home as a boat, "The perfect home that could move around, a home that didn't close you in or tie you down" (203). Unlike traditional conceptions, home now is associated with rootlessness.
Underlining its ideal familial nature, the circus provides the children with the only traditional parents they experience. Dicey senses that she can trust Will, that she and her siblings are finally safe and hence can allow themselves to act as children. The circus people Will and Claire provide protection by saving the children from Mr. Rudyard and give solace and comfort in several significant ways. They take the children in and offer unconditional love, unlike Cousin Eunice for whom care needed the huge payment of gratitude. Unlike the college student Stewart, who had dropped the children off at their aunt's house and driven off without a thought for their safety, Will and Claire show real concern for the children's well being.
Homecoming 's revaluation of the family and the children's long journey culminate in what looks like a traditional idea of home: a small, rural town, a farm, and a grandmother. The journey has led the children back to their origins, from an urban to a rural world, from strangers to their maternal grandmother and to the home in which their mother grew up, and the home in which the seeds of her later lostness were sewn. For a moment, the children (and the reader) are allowed an illusion created by nostalgia—the opposite of home as "part of the changing" (203). We feel relief, for we want the children to find home in every traditional sense. But as Dicey says, "You could assume that everybody wasn't just the way they seemed," and what appears conventional is radically not (272). The children end their journey discovering the truth about their family. It is a truth that finally undoes the traditional, patriarchal family and allows for the creation of a wholly new family structure.
"Home was with Momma"
Homecoming 's and Dicey's revaluations of family, home, and, implicitly, of childhood are linked to the presence and absence of the children's mother. We are led to believe that despite the difficulties the family had endured, as long as they were together with their mother as a family, life was bearable and childhood was intact. The convention of the interrelationship of idealized childhood, mother love, and nature is here invoked and deconstructed. Their mother, like a defeated deity, haunts the story. Her absence is almost a palpable presence, resurrected each time James utters the poignant refrain, "It's still true" (34, 37, 46, 72, 89). Her disappearance destroys any hope that these children may have of experiencing even the semblance of an idealized childhood.
The children's mother, lost in the madness apparently resulting from the unending burdens of single parenthood in modern society, becomes a powerful emblem for the immeasurable societal shiftings that marked the end of the twentieth century. Whether the nineteenth century's cult of the domestic, reverence for motherhood, idealized childhood, and home as a haven in a heartless world ever truly existed, they are markedly absent by the end of the twentieth century. Homecoming memorializes their disappearance in the profound absence of the children's mother.
It is, of course, her absence that necessitates the journey itself—both the children's actual journey and Dicey's inner, spiritual, and philosophical one, for it is the mother's absence which lies at the heart of Dicey's reflections. Where has she gone? Why has she gone? What did it feel like to be her? What should they do? It is through Dicey's struggle to make sense of these questions that she comes to her realizations about family and home. And what she ultimately decides—that home is lost to them forever—is based on the certainty that their mother is lost for good. If "[h]ome was with Momma," as Dicey thinks, and if Momma is lost, then this journey to find a home, this book's homecoming must be somewhat ironic, at best a caricature of our deepest longings for home (172). Or, it could posit a different understanding of home and homecoming, one that no longer necessitates maternal presence—at least none fitting any traditional understanding.
From the lost, abandoning mother to the finding of Gram, who is not quite a metonymic maternal substitute, Homecoming 's progression of mothers serves a double purpose. They are instances both of the novel's radical critique of idealized childhood, family, and home, and of its broader critique of patriarchy—what feminist critic Ann Ferguson calls Husband Patriarchy (the nineteenth century nuclear family model spawned by the Industrial Revolution) and Public or Capitalist Patriarchy (the family model resulting from the intervention of paternalism into all areas of women's lives).9 In Homecoming, both models fail children and families. The novel represents this failure in its subversion of the patriarchal protection usually offered by the orphan tale and in its virtual eradication of mothers. Adults as responsible, loving caretakers do not exist in this world—except as ghosts. But the novel distinguishes between what Adrienne Rich calls the institution of motherhood and its experience.10 The institution of motherhood—conceptions of motherhood as functions of patriarchy—does not work in the novel, but the experience of mothering, of caring and nurturing, permeates it.
Two instances are particularly relevant here. First, although Dicey acts as a substitute mother, the children understand that because she is not their mother, she is more reliable, better than a mother. As they discuss their lost mother, Maybeth notes,
"[Momma is] just lost. But we have Dicey to take care of us."
"Dicey's not our Momma," Sammy said.
"Lucky for us she isn't," James remarked. Sammy turned on him. "Don't you say that. That's not nice."
"But it's true," James insisted. "Dicey wouldn't ever go off and leave us. You wouldn't, would you, Dicey?"
"No," Dicey said.
Dicey has all the attributes we associate with the good mother; she is loyal, responsible, dedicated, self-sacrificing—but she remains always their sibling, a state that allows their mother's absence to be always present and that allows their world to be motherless. It is the experience of motherhood here that is privileged, not its institution.
The experience of mothering is also evident in the children's mutual care for one another. In fact, the only "mother" the children have is the one they construct collectively of themselves. They must stay together and not be separated because together they create a mobile, self-sufficient, self-nurturing maternal entity: "James said, ‘[W]e can take care of ourselves. Wherever.’ … Then they lay down close together and went gently to sleep" (218). The children's replacement of mother by themselves emphasizes the general failure of adults to protect them as well as indicating the solution Homecoming finally offers.
The Tillermans' journey has been committed to keeping the integrity of this familial unit intact by finding, if not a home, a safe and free place. Despite its apparent linearity, this journey is finally oddly circular, mimicking the traditional journey home. As James Henke has noted, their journey replicates that of Odysseus; however, for these children, there is no loyal and patient Penelope at the end (51). Their journey, begun with their mother's absence, brings them back in a sense to their mother, while always underlining her actual absence. They find not home but their mother's home, not their mother, but their mother's mother, who rejects any notion of the maternal.
Yet the only hope of a traditional mother the novel offers the children is in this final meeting with their maternal grandmother, Gram. Voigt uses the conventions typifying traditional signs of home in children's literature—the farm, the ancestral home, grandma—in order to present a searing critique of that home as a destructive patriarchal structure. This final critique has a double function. It serves as the ultimate undoing of the traditional idea of home and clears the way—like the cleansing of an ulcer—for the reconstituting of family, home, and motherhood on new ground.
"Or Maybe Each Boat was a Kind of Family"
Gram almost immediately lets Dicey know she is anything but traditional. She is off-putting, irascible, and possibly crazy; "‘Maybe I am crazy,’ her grandmother said" (252). She further confirms her unconventionality by informing Dicey of her alienation from traditional familial roles, especially in refusing to feel sorry that her husband has died:
"I'm happy since he died."
"Why?" Dicey asked.
"He kept wanting his shoes polished. He never did polish them himself. First thing I did, I bought myself a washing machine."
She not only is free of the role of wife, but also, shockingly to the children and to the reader, she has no interest in motherhood. She acknowledges she knows these children are her grandchildren and rejects them: "I know who you are, and you can't stay here" (253). She is an emancipated woman for whom any semblance of traditional female roles is an impossibility.
Gram's need to explain her rejection, however, provides the children with the truth at the heart of their family: Why they were so isolated, why their parents never married, why their mother went mad, and why they wound up on their journey. Gram reveals that the contamination at the core of their family and the cause of their misfortune has been patriarchy and the intergenerational blight it created. Gram's truth-telling explains why she and the children's mother must abandon motherhood.
Gram describes how her role as a traditional, obedient wife damaged her by preventing her from speaking her truth and, consequently, from being a good mother:
"I was married for thirty-eight years and my husband just died these four years ago. Until then, until he died—when you marry someone you make promises. I kept those promises, love and honor and obey. Even when I didn't want to I kept them. I kept quiet when I had things to say. I always went his way.
"Since he died, I've been different. It took a while, but—it's my own life I'm living now. I had a hard time getting it. I don't want to give it up. No lies, no pretending, no standing back quiet when I want to fight."
Widowhood has given her independence and personal integrity, a life grounded in her profound need for authenticity. In contrast, Gram describes a marriage that demanded both lies and pretending and that fits Ferguson's designation of "Husband Patriarchy." Although this model privileges as it institutionalizes the role of mother, its hierarchical and property structure can radically compromise a woman's integrity, not only subverting her sense of existential authenticity, but also—if not, especially—undercutting the "experience" of mothering. For Gram, the result of honoring her "promises" as a good wife was a life of self-abnegation and destructive obedience.
Feminist ethicist Sandra Lee Bartky points out the ethical dilemma created by "promises" made in this type of patriarchal marriage: To be a good wife, a woman may have to disregard her moral integrity—even if that means abrogating or distorting maternal care.11 At the heart of Gram's sorrow is this ethical conflict created by the oppressive structure of her marriage: To be a good wife meant she could not be a good mother. Gram describes the effect of her ethical conflict as a pernicious anger that infected her entire life and which led, because of her inability to stand for the truth against her husband's dictates, to the disintegration of her family, its diaspora, and the eventual loss of her children to death and madness:
"All that anger—you can choke swallowing back anger. And it still sneaks out, in little ways, and everybody knows although nobody says anything. So they left, every one. They couldn't stay here. All of my children, they ran as fast and as far as they could. My Sammy, he died of it, and that was hard. Hard. And your poor momma—They shamed me. And I shamed myself."
In her analysis of nineteenth-century "sacred" motherhood, Adrienne Rich identifies anger as the one emotion the patriarchy needed to suppress because, she says—as if describing Gram's situation—"Love and anger cannot coexist. Female anger threatens the institution of motherhood" (24).12 Gram understands that this anger destroyed her ability to love her children maternally; she was unable either to safeguard their lives or to promote their psychological and spiritual growth, what Sara Ruddick identifies as qualities essential to "maternal thinking."13 Gram confesses that her vow of obedience as a wife led to her failure as a mother:
"I failed them. I let them go. I told them to go. There were times I could have killed him. He'd sit chewing and the anger and shame were sitting at the table with us. Chew and swallow, so sure he was right. But I'd promised him—and he didn't know why they each left. I did. So, I'm responsible."
As a consequence of this failure, Gram cannot take in the children, cannot be a mother again.
Gram's confession can explain why the children's mother "got lost" and chose also not to be a mother. Gram hypothesizes that her daughter had attempted to avoid her ethical dilemma by not marrying the children's father, "She had seen what happens. She didn't want to give her word, like I did" (301). However, although she is not a wife, she is nonetheless subject to the destructive effect of patriarchy. Unlike her home of origin, the children's mother belongs to what Ferguson identifies as "public" or "capitalist" patriarchy, "the welfare state corporate capitalism," which not only "diminishes the moral and actual authority women had in the nineteenth century" but also "creates an ambivalent relationship between mother and child that is extreme" (171, 172).
Unlike mothers of Gram's generation, mothers in this model have less status because they have no moral authority from idealization and no support. The deadly combination of diminished authority and the lack of community and familial support produces a situation for the Tillermans' mother in which she, too, is unable to exercise maternal caring for her children. She is unable to protect them, foster their growth, or teach them. This inability devastates her. The Tillerman children intuitively understand that their mother left because she could not mother them, "[S]he got so worried … about what she could do to take care of us, about not being able to do anything to make things better— … so she just quit" (115). In her own fashion, then, she, like Gram, admits her failure and, implicitly, acknowledges the impossibility of mothering by rejecting the institutionalized role of motherhood. For both Gram and her daughter, patriarchy—either its "husband" or "public" model—subverts and destroys the authentic experience of mothering. Each autonomously makes the decision to abandon motherhood. Moreover, Gram's confession functions as the plot's climax, for it is this cleansing through truth-saying that allows Gram and the children to reconstitute and build a new family unit. The confession precedes the novel's final chapter in which Gram and the children deepen their connection so that, finally, she is able to call them her grandchildren and allow them to live with her.14
The novel ends with the promise of homecoming fulfilled, children and grandmother building a new family on the farm, the ancestral home. Readers generally have accounted for Gram's change of heart as a result of the children's industriousness15—helping around the house and the farm, they make themselves worthy and wear down their grandmother's resistance; she even tells them, "I give up. You've worn me out. You can stay, you can live with me" (317). The industrious, virtuous child wooing and redeeming a somewhat less virtuous adult is integral to the idealization that informs the orphan protagonist, reaching as far back as Goody Two Shoes and Ellen in Sarah Warner's Wide Wide World.Homecoming once again offers up a traditional image of the idealized child, only to subvert it.
Homecoming 's final chapter gestures toward a reconstituted family—but one that is in no way traditional, as Gram herself says, "The past is gone" (281). A clear feature of this new family is the lack of a hierarchical relationship between the children and Gram, neither of whom fulfills conventional expectations. The children must adjust to a very ungrandmotherly Gram, and Gram, in turn, must come to accept these children as adultified, more equal than not. Initial tensions are about this very issue. Early on Gram recognizes the children's very unchildlike behavior. Upon hearing James recall their experience in New Haven, Gram correctly observes, "You're not helpless infants" (280). However, even though Gram can identify the children as unchildlike and has herself rejected traditional motherhood, she finds it difficult to act other than traditionally. Her conflicts with the children arise from this position, one no doubt controlled by habit but one grounded in the hierarchical power relationship implicit in institutionalized motherhood and patriarchy. The children, who have resolved the problem of mother by mothering themselves and now demand an egalitarian structure, must teach Gram a new vision and new behaviors. For instance, Gram is taught by her grandchildren that they are no longer children in any conventional way:
"You're a child," his grandmother answered.
"So is Dicey," Sammy said.
"I will not have this talking back!" their grandmother snapped.
"But it's not talking back," James said…. "It's explaining. We're trying to get at the truth."
Gram's attempt to put Sammy in his place ("You're a child") is corrected by both Sammy and James. James provides the intellectual context for Sammy's words, revealing an underlining rational intention, "We're trying to get at the truth." Usually an adult activity, truth-getting, with its deep commitment to reason, now becomes the informing spirit of these children's actions, mistakenly perceived by Gram as misbehavior. These reflective, very grown-up children challenge any traditional application of the word "child."
Probably the most dramatic realigning of traditional adult/child roles occurs in the business alliance emerging in the final chapter between Gram and the children. Certainly, the children's industriousness must impress Gram and influence her feelings towards them; but it does not change her. Like so many zealous worker bees, they swarm about her farm, fixing and mending just about anything they can find. The fervent and frantic nature of the children's behavior reframes the traditional representation of the busy, virtuous child into a caricature. They are simply too breathlessly, dizzyingly busy; the idealization of the too virtuous child is subverted. Importantly, diverging from tradition, their grandmother is unmoved by their good actions.
What does move Gram to accept the children reflects the untraditional nature of their relationship. She bends toward them in the final chapter after listening to some very smart talk by James and Dicey, business talk. Upon hearing that Gram is on a fixed income and worried about paying taxes, James and Dicey suggest possible businesses. First, James suggests a Christmas tree farm, "But with a farm, there must be ways to get money…. Did you ever think of growing trees?" (310). In response to Gram's practical concern about the difficulty of getting the trees to a large town, James presents her with other possibilities, beginning with a chicken farm. Only after this series of smart business suggestions does Voigt allow Gram to open to the children. Shortly after this, Gram indicates she has accepted them, tells Millie they are her grandchildren (315), and then announces to them that she will let them stay, "You stay. You can live with me" (317). Although Gram's motivations have complex sources, the juxtaposing of these critical events connects James' and Dicey's entrepreneurial proposals to Gram's decision. We can surmise that she sees a financial advantage in aligning with her grandchildren; implicit in such an alignment is a new adult/child relationship, one which is no longer hierarchical, but which is deeply democratic. The children have, in their knowing innocence, learned what levers the patriarchy.
To create a new life together, Gram and the children build an alliance out of the rupture left by the dissolution of the traditional, patriarchal family. In their new "family," all the roles are redefined. The children will be less childlike and more equal to Gram, their adult. This new "family" values independence and autonomy as it discards traditional notions of father and mother.
Homecoming ends with an image of the Tillermans—Gram and the four children—getting into a boat, now a family, going home. The image recalls Dicey's earlier reformulation of each family as a boat freely floating, harborless, "Always part of the changing" (203). The Tillermans have now become that reformulation literally and figuratively at the novel's completion. Like the circus people, they carry their home with them, so home is no longer necessarily a function of a particular place. The value of home becomes more free floating, mobile: It is a place of safety and rest; it is a business in which all members of the family equally will contribute; and it is certainly a boat with the Tillermans' name on it.
Homecoming 's use of the traditional orphan tale and the idealized Romantic child it invokes has been subversive. It has appropriated these only to deconstruct them, leaving behind as a reminder of a very different world such notions as idealized childhood, traditional patriarchal family, hierarchical divisions between children and adults, and motherhood.16 The children's search for home has really been a searching for their lost momma, who stays lost. Homecoming 's most powerful statement may be about the absence of mothers and mothering in the contemporary world. In its place, the novel gives us a new feminist, independent, post-patriarchal adult caregiver working equally with post-patriarchal adultified children in a world emptied of idealized notions of childhood and motherhood. Voigt's vision is ultimately affirmative, honoring as it does an American belief in rebirth and an Enlightenment faith in the efficacy of rationality. It does not so much speak of the demise of our core values, but of their remaking. Although written at the end of the twentieth century, Homecoming makes a hopeful gesture, looking toward the new millennium. Voigt dismantles these images not to abandon them entirely, but to put them to good new uses that their creators would never have imagined.
1. I use "Romantic Child" and "idealized child" or "childhood" interchangeably.
2. Mills chooses as examples Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Anne of Green Gables, Daddy-Long-Legs, and Pollyanna; however, her analysis is broadly applicable.
3. I use "traditional" here to stand for those stories written during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
4. McGavran mistakenly places Dicey in this pattern. Although he acknowledges that she "is challenged by institutional forces," he nonetheless fails to see that in no way does Dicey return to any semblance of a traditional home or become "very conventional" (133).
5. Plotz, Mills, and Walter each sees a connection between changes in perception of childhood and the failure of parents in contemporary children's stories. Plotz links the disappearance of childhood to the emergence of the adult-child and the child-adult, as she astutely notes, "The presence of this figure [the child-adult] in these two distinguished contemporary novels [After the First Death and A Solitary Blue] is certainly curious and possibly prophetic" (78).
6. Jon Stott usefully distinguishes between linear and circular motifs in relationship to children and home. Nodelman's idea of the No-Name Pattern—a circular pattern leading from home back to a greater appreciation of home—has an ironic play in Homecoming. The children's journey does in a sense return them to home—their mother's home of origin; but instead of discovering that "home is best," they discover that home has been the source of their and their mother's pain.
7. James Henke accounts for much of the text's power in its appropriation of the "lost child" motif. (See especially page 51.) Virginia Walter argues also for the power of the motif. Her discussion of postmodern ironic and self-conscious uses of it resembles the analysis I make here of Voigt's self-conscious use of domestic fiction motifs. Mills provides a developmental history of orphans from the turn of the century through the latter part of the twentieth century. She identifies three stages of orphans: the Romantic protagonists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the reserved children of the post-World War II period, and the bitter and angry orphans of 1960s and 1970s "new realism." These last children, says Mills, are characterized by being both hopeless and unlovable—and by needing to abandon childhood for an acceptance of growing up. In this latter sense, these protagonists (e.g., Gilly Hopkins) re- semble the Tillerman children. However, the Tillermans do not fit this last category for they are not especially bitter or angry. Instead, though flawed and savvy, they are markedly hopeful and appealing.
8. The Children's Defense Fund Annual Yearbook documents the unhappy state of children in the United States. For the year 2000, for example, they report that the largest number of children recorded, 12 million, have no health insurance, two million children live in families without parents, and two children under five are murdered each day in America. The changes in the legal definition of childhood are also revelatory. Disneyland now defines a child as nine years or under. A New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story, "The Maximum Security Adolescent" (September 10, 2000) poignantly speaks to issues of powerlessness and victimization in children and young adolescents.
9. The experience of mothering is "the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children; and the institution, which aims at ensuring that that potential—and, all women—shall remain under male control. This institution has been a keystone of the most diverse social and political systems" (Ferguson xii).
10. In wanting to privilege "maternal experience," Ruddick describes the experience of mothering as "maternal thinking"; it is comprised of (1) preserving the life of the child, (2) fostering the child's growth, and (3) accepting and training that child. Both Gram and the children's mother are unable to exercise these three conditions.
11. Bartky presents a dramatic example of how marriage can ethically compromise a woman. She points to the wife of the Kommandant of Treblinka who despite her horror at her husband's actions continued to "feed" and "tend" him and treat him lovingly. In doing so, believes Bartky, she compromised herself, remaining silent about evil. Gram, too, expresses such a devastating compromise, having remained silent about the evil in her household as she continued to feed and tend her husband.
12. Rich provides several quotes from directives to mothers that suggest methods for suppressing anger. One admonished, "Let a mother feel grieved, and manifest her grief when her child does wrong; … but never let her manifest irritated feeling, or give utterance to an angry expression." Underlying her point, she quotes Marmee in Little Women telling Jo, "I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so" (23).
13. Curiously, both Gram and her daughter respond to ending their "mothering" by becoming crazy. In her first words to Dicey, Gram remarks, "Maybe I am crazy" (252). Gram's craziness can be understood from two perspectives. From the perspective of others, her actions are "crazy," because they are those of a nonconformist, an eccentric, going her own way. Yet from her own perspective, Gram's actions are "crazy" because they represent the hard choice forced by her awareness of the "craziness" in her home and the crazy behavior demanded of her by motherhood. Her daughter, the children's mother, experiences a less ambiguous madness. However, for both, craziness appears to be an adaptation to conditions created by patriarchal models.
14. James Henke, in keeping with his comparison of Homecoming to The Odyssey, sees the children's actions both as those of suitors of their grandmother and as becoming a substitute for Penelope's weaving. Here their continued work becomes a trick that allows them to stay with their Gram; as long as there is work to do, argues Henke, they can remain (51).
15. Rich has a germane observation: "The power-relations between mother and child are often simply a reflection of power-relations in patriarchal society: ‘You will do this because I know what is good for you’ is difficult to distinguish from ‘You will do this because I can make you.’ Powerless women have always used mothering as a channel … for their own human will to power, their need to return upon the world what it has visited on them" (16).
16. Even though the Tillermans are a natural unit, the family now is closer in its structure to what Ferguson describes as "social motherhood": "social, egalitarian parenting (parenting characterized by chosen, non-possessive social networks of women and children)" (175).
Bartky, Sandra Lee. Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Children's Defense Fund. The State of America's Children Yearbook 2000. Washington: Children's Defense Fund, 2000.
Ferguson, Ann. "On Conceiving Motherhood and Sexuality: A Feminist Materialist Approach." Mothering. Ed. Joyce Trebilcot. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983.
Flynn, Richard. "‘Infant Sight’: Romanticism, Childhood, and Postmodern Poetry." Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestation. Ed. James Holt McGavran. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1999. 105-29.
Henke, James. "Dicey, Odysseus, and Hansel and Gretel: The Lost Children in Voigt's Homecoming." Children's Literature in Education 16 (1985): 45-52.
Higonnet, Anne. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.
McGavran, James Holt. "Wordsworth, Lost Boys, and Romantic Hom(e)ophobia." Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestation. Ed. James Holt McGavran. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1999. 130-52.
Mills, Claudia. "Children in Search of a Family: Orphan Novels through the Century." Children's Literature in Education 18 (1987): 227-39.
Murray, Gail Schmunk. American Children's Literature and the Construction of Childhood. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Myers, Mitzi. "Reading Children and Homeopathic Romanticisim: Paradigm Lost, Revisionary Gleam, or ‘Plus Ça Change, Plus C'est la Même Chose’?" Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestation. Ed. James Holt McGavran. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1999. 44-84.
Nodelman, Perry. The Pleasures of Children's Literature, 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1996.
Plotz, Judith. "The Disappearance of Childhood: Parent-Child Role Reversals in After the First Death and A Solitary Blue." Children's Literature in Education 19 (1988): 67-79.
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton, 1976.
Richardson, Alan. "Romanticism and the End of Childhood." Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestation. Ed. James Holt McGavran. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1999. 23-43.
Ruddick, Sara. "Maternal Thinking." Mothering. Ed. Joyce Trebilcot. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983.
Stott, Jon. "Running Away to Home—A Story Pattern in Children's Literature." Language Arts 55 (April 1978): 473-77.
Talbot, Margaret. "The Maximum Security Adolescent." The New York Times Sunday Magazine 10 September 2000: 40.
Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children's Novels. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1997.
Voigt, Cynthia. Homecoming. New York: Fawcett Juniper, 1981.
Walter, Virginia A. "Hansel and Gretel as Abandoned Children: Timeless Images for a Postmodern Age." Children's Literature in Education 23 (1992): 203-14.
DICEY'S SONG (1982)
Tom Albritton (essay date spring 1994)
SOURCE: Albritton, Tom. "Teaching, Learning, and Archetypes: Images of Instruction in Cynthia Voigt's Dicey's Song." ALAN Review 21, no. 3 (spring 1994): 56-9.
[In the following essay, Albritton suggests that Voigt's Dicey's Song incorporates three different models of teaching.]
One of the ways we learn about anything, whether it's playing piano or football, gourmet cooking or public speaking, is by studying and emulating the models of experts in the field we are trying to master. Those models are often presented to us through stories and images. Teaching belongs in this collection of things to be learned, and one of the most available resources for stories on teaching is the contemporary body and vast tradition of literature in which teachers and teaching are portrayed. Consequently, two important questions to ask when examining how people learn to be teachers are: How are teachers portrayed in literature? and, What messages do aspiring teachers get from these portrayals?
Cynthia Voigt's Dicey's Song is widely taught by real-life teachers and widely read by young adults, some of whom may actually go on to become teachers and all of whom are continually forming and revising their notions of "teacher." Dicey's Song also portrays three very different and well-defined kinds of schoolteachers. Consequently, it is a good example of influential teacher-image literature and a good place to begin investigating the questions I have posed above.
The critical tool I've selected for sorting through these images is a work by Carol Pearson entitled The Hero Within. Pearson revises and expands Joseph Campbell's study of heroic archetypes, creating a model of stages and cycles for the hero's journey. In this essay, I have described some of the ways characters teach as a result of their ongoing places along the heroic journey. First, a brief summary of Pearson's model for that journey.
The Hero's Journey: Pearson's Model
In adapting Joseph Campbell's work on heroic archetypes to a theory of psychological growth, Carol Pearson has developed a way of considering personal power that moves through a range of at least six archetypes, any one of which a person may draw upon during the course of his or her growth into wholeness. Those six archetypes are as follows: the Innocent, the Orphan, the Wanderer, the Warrior, the Martyr, and the Magician. In recent work, Pearson has added more figures to her pantheon, but these six provide a big picture that is quite suitable for examining the core differences among such very different teachers as Voigt presents. As one grows through Pearson's six archetypes, her life is characterized by an increasing awareness, first of self, and then of otherness, until in the final type, one embraces the puzzling contradictions of fate as educational rather than fatal.
Pearson herself notes that one is always "going to school with each type" (p. 13). But what sorts of lessons do the archetypes convey? What kinds of teachers are they? And, perhaps more to the point, what kinds of teachers do they empower us to be?
The Innocent, to Pearson, isn't much of a teacher at all. This archetype functions only as a state of ignorance, powerlessness, at best a condition of temporary naivete, good only as a place to move away from. Pearson even describes this first stage as a setup for the second: "The Innocent lives in a prefallen state of grace; the orphan confronts the reality of the Fall" (p. 4). I would argue that the Innocent's prefallenness may actually compel other orphans to guide the Innocent out of his or her mist, or even to recognize something of value in the Innocent's vision, and that consequently the innocent makes its own substantive contribution as an instructional stage. Think of what first-time parents learn from a crying but inarticulate baby. But Pearson emphasizes this earliest stage of the journey as one which contextualizes the recognition of discomfort experienced most fully in the next stage.
Then, once orphaned from the protection of pre-fall illusions, the individual must begin developing "strategies for living in a fallen world. The Wanderer begins the task of finding oneself apart from others; the Warrior learns to fight to defend oneself and to change the world in one's own image; and the Martyr learns to give, to commit, and to sacrifice for others. The progression, then," Pearson argues, "is from suffering, to self-definition, to struggle, to love" (p. 4).
The non-pedagogical characters in Dicey's Song, especially Dicey and Gram, experience precisely this progression—opening with defensive isolationism and self-protection and ending with collaboration and inclusion. It remains to be seen which if any of Voigt's teachers reach these same ultimate goals. But one of Pearson's archetypes remains to be defined— the Magician. Pearson's passages on the Magician are so richly detailed that I will begin my own commentary on this archetype by quoting her extensively.
At the Magician's level … dualities begin to break down…. Magicians believe that in fact we are safe even though we often experience pain and suffering…. Beyond strength vs. weakness, they come to understand that assertion and receptivity are yang and yin—a life rhythm, not a dualism.
The Magician learns that we are not life's victims; we are part of the unfolding of God.
After learning to change one's environment by great discipline, will, and struggle, the Magician learns to move with the energy of the universe…. Magicians aim to be true to their inner wisdom and to be in balance with the energies of the universe.
In short, for the Magician there is no enemy, no culprit, no obstacle; there are instead lessons, challenges, realistic events that make up the complex, contradictory, oftentimes uncomfortable, yet safe flow of real experience. The safety comes from one's acknowledgement that the flow is natural instead of threatening, that, in fact, true safety comes from the one source that cannot be threatened—one's inner, comfortably honest sense of the world.
The Magician has learned to celebrate all experience, because of a wise redefinition of experience as that which can hold valuable lessons, and that which is by nature interestingly contradictory. I believe that the teacher portrayed most positively in Dicey's Song can be described as one of Pearson's Magicians. It seems, also, that the differences in method, attitude, and effectiveness across all three teachers are represented by Pearson's range of archetypes. Thus, the archetypes may provide a discriminating way to begin thinking about teaching practices, even as they tell an engaging story for young people.
The Teacher's Journey in Dicey's Song
Do the archetypal patterns of heroic growth really fit the characteristics and processes of pedagogical growth? An examination of three classroom teachers in this novel does suggest at least parallel, if not identical, paths. Just as the most actualized characters in the ancient stories of heroes seem empowered by traits of self-identity and openness to others, so also do the most influential teachers seem both most certain of who they are and most realistic about their students' weaknesses, needs, and potential.
The fictional pedagogue in Dicey's Song who provides the greatest contrast to heroic imagery is a home-economics teacher named Miss Eversleigh. The simplest way to name Miss Eversleigh's problem is that she is engaging in no journey at all. She "drones on" as a teacher (p. 90), and her verbal droning signals a great rigidness and stasis in other aspects of her teaching, including her view of herself in the job. Unlike Sammy, Dicey's youngest brother, whose mask of good behavior is uncomfortably confining and whose growth through the story is dramatic, Miss Eversleigh is comfortably masked, maintaining as a part of her working condition a denial of her true identity.
Notice Miss Eversleigh's complete denial of Dicey's own experience at home economy. When Dicey describes the meal plan that had actually fed herself and her siblings in their flight from Massachusetts to Maryland, Miss Eversleigh gives her plan an F, noting that "Nobody could live for long on meals like this" (p. 111). But Dicey's own life proved otherwise. By contrast, when Miss Eversleigh defends her own work, she speaks in non-negotiable abstractions and ideals. "The materials we cover in this course are skills…. I have always believed that there is as great a disadvantage to not being able to perform domestic skills as to not being able to perform intellectual skills, or athletic, or social" (p. 112).
When she suspects that her students fail to adopt her level of commitment, she simply concludes, "‘If you do not understand [the value of this course] then your understanding is faulty.’ That was the end," the narrator adds. "Miss Eversleigh just stood there until the bell rang, a long, uncomfortable five minutes. Nobody stirred. Nobody said anything" (p. 113). And why would they? Their teacher had left absolutely no room for any view but her own. Her work depends on images of home economics and school culture as she wants them to be, not as it really presents itself to her.
And if her rigid denial of Dicey's experience, indeed her insistence on her own exclusive view of home economics, is not enough to define her as one who has stopped growing, her reappearance later in the story shows, in fact, that she does not want to connect with her students in any way that might challenge her own way or perspective. Even after Dicey takes the opportunity to open herself more vulnerably to Miss Eversleigh's real meaning, Miss Eversleigh insists on her own version of reality—including a version of the naughty student she imagines Dicey to be. Furthermore, Miss Eversleigh insists on her own definition of learning—namely, blind acceptance and obedience. That insistence costs Miss Eversleigh any remaining chance that she might have had to win Dicey's respect and attention.
Dicey was washing the outside of the front windows, taking it slowly because the sun on her shoulders felt so good, when she felt somebody come stand beside her. Miss Eversleigh, in her same suit and pin, with her same teacher face. Dicey smiled at her. She couldn't help it: her mind was still on Gram beating all the second graders at marbles.
"I didn't know you could smile," Miss Eversleigh remarked. Something about her tone of voice and her glance made Dicey remember.
"Miss Eversleigh." She dropped the squeegee into the bucket and dried her hands on her jeans. "I wanted to ask you. You were talking to us, but I wasn't listening. Last week? But I think I'd like to know what you said."
"I was talking to you," Miss Eversleigh said. "Mostly to you. I was talking about you."
"But what did you say?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I have a strong feeling I should have paid attention." That was as far as Dicey was willing to go. Miss Eversleigh pursed her lips.
"I said that it was important to learn the things we are doing in the class."
Then Dicey found she could remember. "Because they take skill. That's what you said, isn't it? You said it takes as much skill as building something."
Miss Eversleigh nodded. She was looking at Dicey as if she couldn't understand what Dicey was up to.
"OK," Dicey said. "Thank you. I remember now. I never meant to be—disrespectful to you."
"And?" Miss Eversleigh insisted.
"And?" Dicey asked. She knew, though, what Miss Eversleigh wanted her to say. Instead she said, "I guess I think it's interesting to say that, and I'll think about it."
"But you won't try harder and care more?" Miss Eversleigh inquired.
"How can I say that? I haven't even thought about it yet."
"You're a strange child," Miss Eversleigh said. She was holding a purse in her two hands, right in front of her stomach.
"I guess so," Dicey agreed.
Dicey is, at least, willing to go part of the way with Miss Eversleigh. However, Miss Eversleigh is only willing to convert Dicey entirely, not to meet her part-way in return. Instead of developing a way of including Dicey, Miss Eversleigh continues to deny even her own responsibility in her conflict with the student, simply blaming the conflict on the child's being "strange."
A second classroom teacher, Dicey's English teacher, Mr. Chappelle, portrays a person on the verge of an important, yet rather awkward, immature period of growth. In Pearson's language, Mr. Chappelle moves from Orphan (the disillusioned idealist whose student, he believes, has cheated) and Warrior (the teacher who confronts first and asks questions later) at least to a point of wondering (Wandering?), recognizing that he has responded poorly to Dicey's well-written paper, but not yet sure of a more appropriate response.
The tension that triggers Mr. Chappelle's journey is created by his apparent need, initially, to serve two pedagogical masters—his need to achieve personal appeal with his class, as illustrated by his personal writing assignment; and his belief (created, perhaps, by his image of himself as a good, strict teacher) that any outstanding student work must be plagiarized.
When he is confronted with the exception to this rule, he shows, at least (and unlike his colleague in home economics), an openness to his newfound classroom reality—to the person his student really is—but he seems unprepared to respond effectively to this real moment. In an apparent panic, he changes Dicey's grade from F to A+ without ever convincing her that he has really heard her story or truly evaluated her work. Ultimately in the story, a change has occurred for Mr. Chappelle, but not the kind of change that Dicey would like. "The way he pussyfoots around me, it makes me sick," she complains (p. 165). However, Mr. Chappelle is taking action. And it is an informed action, it seems, by his sensed need for more-sensitive interactions with his students. That we never actually see him again in the novel after his confrontation with Dicey suggests that, even as he "pussyfoots," he is out journeying, trying, slowly and painfully growing.
Ironically, it is a teacher whose main work in the story is done outside of the classroom who is the truest match with archetypal magic and heroic achievement. As one might expect from a Magician—from one whose strength lies largely in his openness to all experience—Mr. Lingerle, Maybeth's music teacher, first appears in the novel, not as a deliberate, controlling teacher, but as music itself. He is not a teacher struggling to teach, but rather a teacher truly and fully, simply, being himself (warts—or in this case fatness, baldness, and sweat—and all) and truly, simply being what he teaches.
… Dicey followed the music down the hall.
A man sat at the piano. He was so fat that his fanny hung down over the back of the bench. He was fat like a cartoon fat person. For a minute, Dicey saw nothing but fatness, then looked at the details. The back of his head had a bald spot, a pink circle with a few stray hairs carefully combed over it, as if he were trying to hide it. Like trying to hide a basketball under three shoelaces, Dicey thought. His eyes and nose and mouth were all buried in the flesh of his face, and his double chins hung down. His hands, despite looking thick and clumsy at the ends of huge arms, danced over the piano keys. He was concentrating so hard—adjusting his position on the bench as the chords took him up and down the keyboard, staring down at the keys under his fingers—that sweat ran down by his ear and his shirt was stained under the armpits. His mouth was open as if he was panting. And the music poured out of the piano like a stream pouring down the side of a mountain, or like the wind pouring over the bending branches of trees.
Dicey stood, listening.
A second observation of Mr. Lingerle is that he is, from the start, both realistic and enthusiastic about his student—about her homelife, her academic faults, and her gifts and potential.
"Listen to me for a minute," Mr. Lingerle pleaded. "I'm not saying Maybeth is a genius, or anything like it. But she is one of those people, one of those lucky people, who will always have music in their lives. People who can always find pleasure in music, no matter what else—hurts them, or goes wrong. I'd like to give her as much music as I can, because—because I want to. It's a pleasure for me."
Finally, in addition to his honest acceptance of himself and his student—a clear sense, as it were, of the pieces to the academic puzzle—Mr. Lingerle shows his respect for a guiding, driving principle. Just as Pearson argues that the Magician feels that she is "part of the unfolding of God" (p. 117) and driven by "the energy of the universe" (p. 5). Mr. Lingerle seems driven by a belief system that not only gives his teaching energy and direction but also, in the following passage, unites him with Gram, the living example of Maybeth's real history.
Gram was silent, then said, "We don't have the money."
"I wasn't asking for money," Mr. Lingerle cried, exasperated. "Did I mention money?"
Dicey turned around to catch the end of Gram's quick smile. "If you can afford it," Gram said.
"I can't afford not to," Mr. Lingerle told her. "I guess you can't know—how exhilarating to teach someone like Maybeth. So, we're agreed?"
"Entirely," Gram said.
If there were any doubts to this point about Mr. Lingerle's "magical" qualities, his joining ranks in entire agreement with the story's non-pedagogical Magician, Gram, suggests strongly that here is a teacher character who, archetypally speaking, has arrived.
So, while we're teaching Dicey's Song, we may be sending and receiving several powerful messages about teaching itself. Among those messages, here are a few that stand out in my own reading, thanks to some help from Carol Pearson's archetypes for heroic growth. Growth into better teaching seems particularly likely to happen: 1) when discomfort leads to an honest sense of identity, 2) when clear identity becomes understood through one's guiding principles, 3) when the discovery of principle leads to affiliation, and 4) when that affiliation puts one in contact with others as they really are, and not as one fears, imagines, or needs them to be.
The instructors portrayed in this novel illustrate at least three separate positions along the hero's journey: one static, another just beginning, and yet another under the full influence of those heroic traits of identity, principle, and affiliation. I would not argue that all good teachers must be as open or personally engaged as Mr. Lingerle, nor that no teacher as rigid as Miss Eversleigh can be effective. I can conclude, however, that the teachers modelled in this novel do, indeed, illustrate some of the things that good teachers do. One of those things is to care about and listen to their students; another is to acknowledge where their students (and themselves) really are so that the teaching does happen has a clear source and a clear target.
Another message in these images is that no student has cornered the market on failure or potential. If the Magician tells us anything at all as teachers, it is that each student may fail and that each student can succeed—that failure and success can never, realistically, be mutually exclusive.
Finally, I believe that these images tell us, as teachers, that through our willingness to experience levels of honesty and vulnerability that we may sometimes find uncomfortable, we can continue to grow in our effectiveness as well as our creativity. If we are honest with ourselves, then we can more closely monitor our own journeys and, consequently, be more constructively available to our students, regardless of where we are in the growth process. Bolstered by principle and energized by realistic notions of hope, teaching can indeed be heroic, and teachers' journeys can lead to magic.
Pearson, Carol. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. Expanded Edition. HarperCollins, 1989.
Voigt, Cynthia. Dicey's Song. Fawcett Juniper, 1982.
A SOLITARY BLUE (1983)
Rosanne Donahue (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Donahue, Rosanne. "A Solitary Blue." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 3, edited by Kirk H. Beetz and Suzanne Niemeyer, pp. 1251-57. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, Inc., 1990.
[In the following essay, Donahue stresses the themes of love, trust, and strength in Voigt's A Solitary Blue.]
About the Author
Cynthia Voigt was born on February 25, 1942, in Boston, Massachusetts. She attended the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she graduated with distinction. She earned her bachelor's degree from Smith College in 1963. After she married, Voigt received her teaching certificate from St. Michael's College (now called the College of Santa Fe) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, then moved to Annapolis, Maryland, where she began teaching at the Key School.
Voigt's books for young adults began appearing in the early 1980s and were soon winning praise and awards. Homecoming was nominated for an American Book Award; Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers was named an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults; and The Callender Papers won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best juvenile mystery. In addition, Dicey's Song received the Newbery Medal, and A Solitary Blue was named a Newbery Honor Book.
Like most of Voigt's books, A Solitary Blue focuses on the theme of love and trust. It tells the story of Jeff Greene from the ages of seven to sixteen. The novel begins on the day he comes home from school to find that his mother has left him and his father, and it ends years later when Jeff, who has inherited his wealthy great-grandmother's estate, rejects his dishonest mother's overtures. Along the way, Jeff learns to overcome his insecurity, which results from the abandonment by his mother, the apparent indifference of his father, and the neglect of a series of live-in housekeepers/sitters. His ability to come to terms with his difficult childhood demonstrates the potential of the individual to learn from and triumph over painful experiences. Although it is hurtful, Jeff's psychological journey is fascinating, and the lessons he learns about the real nature of love and strength are valuable and convincing.
The setting of A Solitary Blue is integral to the story and its themes. The story begins in Baltimore, then moves between Charleston, South Carolina, and Baltimore, and finally ends in Crisfield, Maryland.
Baltimore and Charleston come to represent two extremes of Jeff Greene's confused and insecure life. In Charleston with his mother, where it is warm and sunny, Jeff feels loved. In Baltimore with his father, where the weather is colder, he feels self-sufficient and reticent. The house in Charleston is spacious and bright; in Baltimore, the house has small rooms and narrow halls. In Charleston, he is Jeffie (his mother's name for him) or Jefferson (his great-grandmother's name for him); in Baltimore he is Jeff Greene. On his first visit to Charleston, when he sees his mother for the first time in almost five years, Jeff feels "like a man must who has been kept in a dungeon for years and years, and he steps out into the sunlight for the first time." Just as he physically is shuttled back and forth between Baltimore and Charleston, Jeff is emotionally torn between his father and his mother; because Jeff has no identity of his own, he becomes what he thinks his mother wants him to be when he is in Charleston and what he thinks his father wants him to be when he is in Baltimore.
His mother seems the warmer, more loving character. She has told Jeff that his father is a poor parent, a cold, unloving, boring man; little in his shy, introspective father's behavior indicates otherwise to Jeff. But when, in the warm and happy atmosphere of Charleston, Melody betrays Jeff's love and trust yet again, he must find a retreat from the beautiful setting that is now tainted for him with the stains of sorrow and disillusionment. He finds an uninhabited island to which he can sail each day and be safe from hurtful human contact. The island represents Jeff's withdrawal from life, but what it symbolizes is not altogether bad. In solitude Jeff begins to recover from the shock of learning what his mother is really like; on the island, he can begin to muster his internal resources to fortify himself for a return to what he thinks is the unloving atmosphere of Baltimore. But in Baltimore he discovers that his father really does love him. The Professor does not say much about love, but he is reliable and trustworthy; he is always there.
Recognizing Jeff's unhappiness and his bad memories associated with the Baltimore house, the Professor discusses with Jeff the possibility of moving. They sell their house and move to a smaller one in Crisfield, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The Professor, who is a man of few words but astute observation, knows that this house and the surrounding area remind Jeff of "his" island. This is the place where Jeff will be happy. Crisfield is home to Jeff. Charleston and Baltimore were places where he lived or stayed; they were never home.
Themes and Characters
Jeff Greene is the protagonist in A Solitary Blue ; the reader sees everything that happens through his eyes. The novel begins when seven-year-old Jeff comes home from school and finds a note from his mother that says she has gone away and will not be coming back. In the letter she intimates that Jeff should try to do things for himself and not bother his father. This insures that Jeff will be afraid to grieve publicly and ask for help.
Jeff is a frightened, sensitive, and insecure boy; he feels as if his father might leave at any moment if he becomes a hindrance. Later, as Jeff matures, he takes chances: he tells his mother he does not like her lying, and becomes more open with his father. His sensitivity will always leave him vulnerable to pain, but his love of nature and music will help him through such suffering. By the end of the book, his hard-won emotional maturity shows that he is a strong and brave young man willing to take the risk of loving and trusting again.
The Professor, Jeff's father, has been terribly hurt by his marriage to Melody; although he is extremely intelligent, he has a difficult time communicating with others. He is withdrawn and gives the appearance of not caring. Jeff bases his image of the Professor in part upon what Melody has told him and in part upon the Professor's own withdrawal from life. The Professor also grows as a person when he and Jeff are able to communicate with each other. Like Jeff, the Professor has been living behind a wall for protection.
Melody, Jeff's mother, may be the most simple character in the book: she is a type, like Mrs. Jellaby in Charles Dickens's Bleak House. She is full of concern for strangers, but oddly indifferent to the suffering of her own husband and son. She has gone off to try to save the world. She gives the appearance of being a loving person; unlike the Professor she is very demonstrative. When Jeff goes to visit her, she hugs and kisses him frequently. Starved for affection, Jeff assumes this is love. Even though she lies and manipulates people, Melody is not all bad. She wants custody of Jeff only after she finds out that Gambo, her grandmother, has made him the heir of her will. But Melody does not want the money for herself; she wants to put it into her crusades. When Jeff gives Melody Gambo's diamond engagement ring, she plans to sell it so that she can go on a charitable mission to Colombia, South America. In her own way Melody tries to make the world a better place. But the trail of pain and shattered illusions she leaves behind in her personal life is an ironic contradiction of her good intentions.
Among the minor characters are Brother Thomas, Gambo, and Miss Opal. Brother Thomas is a friend of the Professor's who also teaches at the university. He acts as a bridge between the Professor and Jeff by forcing them to talk and interact with one another. Gambo is Melody's grandmother and Jeff's great-grandmother. She is wealthy and very pleased to meet Jeff because he is the last of the Boudrault family line of men. Gambo fills Jeff with the history of his family. Even though Gambo and Jeff are not very close, she makes him the heir of her estate, an act inspired by pride rather than love. Her cold character helps the reader to understand Melody's personality. Miss Opal, Gambo's maid, gives up her house and moves in to take care of Gambo when she has a stroke. Jeff is amazed to learn that she is older than Gambo. After Gambo's death, Jeff asks the lawyer to give the house to Miss Opal so that she will have a place to live for the rest of her life.
The Tillerman family in Crisfield helps Jeff heal his emotional wounds and start to trust people again. The family includes Gram, the eccentric old woman who has taken her four grandchildren in; Dicey, the bright, tough, honest oldest girl; James, the oldest boy, a mixture of intelligence and raw curiosity; Maybeth, who is fragile and warm; and Sammy, a born fighter. Although the Tillermans are present only in the last third of the book, they are deftly drawn, and their role is important. Jeff sees in them what a family can be: a collection of individuals bound together by a tough and honest love.
The search for true love and trust is the most memorable theme in A Solitary Blue. It is most clearly shown in Jeff's experiences and development. Twice betrayed by his mother, Jeff becomes obsessed with protecting his heart. His father's less demonstrative but more reliable love finally reassures him, and he becomes a caring young man who is at last secure. Jeff has come full circle because he has learned to love and trust himself.
Voigt has been described in the New York Book Review as "a wonderful writer with powerfully moving things to say." The wide variety of images and symbols she uses can turn a realistic, everyday happening into something new and wonderful. Voigt knows that young people believe the possible to be real and writes according to her readers' expectations. Without being unrealistic, she presents the possibility of happiness, healing, and love.
The most obvious symbol in A Solitary Blue is the blue heron. Jeff appreciates the heron's beauty and its love of solitude. The blue heron does not want to be bothered and is frightened by sudden movement. The heron parallels Jeff, who, after being devastated by his mother's abandonment, becomes wary, untrusting, and withdrawn. The only time that people do not frighten the heron into flying away is when Jeff and Dicey are together in the sailboat.
Voigt uses simple but evocative diction, and her descriptions of the blue heron and Jeff's tranquil island are almost poetic. Her dialogue is strikingly appropriate to the characters. The Professor speaks almost in monosyllables until he and Jeff come to understand and trust one another; then he shows himself to be very articulate but never chatty. Melody, on the other hand, fairly gushes with words: light and funny dialogue when she is happy, appealing emotional language when she wants something, and bitter, harsh remarks when she is angry. This skillful use of language helps make the characters, even minor ones such as Miss Opal, fully rounded. This lends depth to the book, for even people with very small roles in Jeff's story are perceived as people, not cardboard cutouts.
Melody's early abandonment of her child and her later betrayal of his trust create perhaps the most sensitive issue in A Solitary Blue. This negative picture of a mother reveals a harsh emotional truth: that some people, even parents, are never able to love maturely. The selfishness and narcissism of Melody's love is disturbing. But it is crucial to Jeff's development that he see Melody for what she is. The relationship between Jeff and his mother never improves, but he finally reaches a stage where he expresses anger toward her. Jeff travels far to trust himself enough to afford the luxury of deciding his own fate.
Voigt presents this situation with great sensitivity. Jeff rejects his mother because she repeatedly betrays his trust, and he does so only after a good deal of introspection. Neither Melody's final betrayal nor Jeff's rejection is malicious. After the final betrayal, Jeff finds an isolated island, and there, "he felt at ease with himself and as if he had come home to a place where he could be himself, without hiding anything, without pretending even to himself." But Voigt makes it clear that while such an escape may be part of the healing process for Jeff, it is not a solution to his problems. Jeff is still alone; he has found part of himself, but he has not integrated that part into a whole person who can function in society. When he returns to Baltimore, he keeps the image of the island with him at all times but finds that he is not capable of concentrating on anything else. The guitar that has been such an important part of his life lies unnoticed in his room, and his school-work suffers to the point that he gets suspended.
It is when Jeff finally manages to leave his "island" to share his feelings with the Professor that he realizes his father loves him. Once Jeff lets any feeling inside of his emotional fortress, he is able to feel everything. He still has bad memories, but he now can live a fuller life and treasure some good memories as well.
Jim Garrison (essay date winter 1996)
SOURCE: Garrison, Jim. "A Transactional Reading of Cynthia Voigt's Jackaroo: The Prophetic Art of Friendly Instruction." ALAN Review 23, no. 2 (winter 1996): 12-21.
[In the following essay, Garrison employs the literary theories of John Dewey and Louise Rosenblatt in his contention that Jackaroo offers complex arguments about the constraints of freedom and the relative differences in good and evil.]
John Dewey (1934, 1987) felt "that poetry teaches as friends and life teach, by being, and not by express intent" (p. 349). For young readers books are friends; often the best friends they have. Books can open up worlds of possibility and satisfy needs and desires, and sustain hopes and dreams when all others, including teachers, parents, and peers, fail. Books are warm and caring friends. They can also discipline and disturb us by listening well, speaking sincerely, and giving us a different perspective on things.
I want to provide an example of a book that teaches by being a friend. The book is Cynthia Voigt's Jackaroo. Some friends can be dangerous. I believe this book goes beyond the norms of conventional good and evil. It is an instance of creative, imaginative criticism; that is, the most penetrating criticism. Jackaroo is potentially prophetic to its readers. My reading of Jackaroo is my own. It is the response of one reader to a text. My approach is influenced by Louise M. Rosenblatt's widely influential "reader response" theory of literary interpretation. This choice is far from arbitrary. Consider the subtitle of one of Rosenblatt's (1978, 1994) most famous works: The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Rosenblatt explicitly acknowledges her debt to Dewey throughout this book; for instance, in her preface she admits that "Dewey's Art as Experience especially left its mark, perhaps more through its vision of aesthetic values woven into the texture of the daily life of human beings than its specific treatment of the literary arts" (p. xi). Our interest in Dewey is precisely his vision of moral and aesthetic values woven into the texture of the daily life of human beings. His aesthetic opinions regarding any specific art form, including literature, do not concern us.
Rosenblatt provides us with an extraordinarily good summary of Dewey's entire transactional philosophy of value conflict, choice, and self-creation:
Recall … the Deweyan reminder that the organism plays an active and selective role in the transactional response to environment. As important as the interdependence of the self and the world is the potentiality of choice among alternatives, the capacity to revise and reshape our perceptions and our actions…. For the individual reader, each text is a new situation, a new challenge. The literary work of art, we have seen, is an important kind of transaction with the environment precisely because it permits such self-aware acts of consciousness. The reader, bringing his own particular temperament and fund of past transactions to the text, lives thorough a process of handling new situations, new attitudes, new personalities, new conflicts in values.
The process of vicariously living through new situations, new conflicts in values through transactions with texts, or more exactly, the transactions between the culturally funded text of the person and the literary text at hand, requires that we reconsider and possibly revise our answer to the basic existential question of how we should live. I admit bringing my own Deweyan temperament and fund of past transactions to my reading of Jackaroo.
Jackaroo is set somewhere in the Middle Ages were the peasants, especially the women, are silenced by suspicion and fear. They often tell the old stories, especially of the legendary hero Jackaroo, although they only somewhat believe what they say. Gwyn is different because she questions, imagines, and undergoes different feelings than those around her. The book begins in the heart of a brutal winter with Gwyn in the "Doling Room," where she has gone to receive a dole of food. Gwyn's basic conflict of values and context of choice is established early:
Men didn't come to the Doling Room. The shame would be too great for a man to carry. So the women carried it, Gwyn thought. It was a hard thing to be a woman, her mother had often told her…. In the spring, then, she would have to say yes to some man, or let Da announce her intention never to marry. One or the other, because service in a Lord's house was unimaginable. One or the other was her choice, and she liked neither; but she could do nothing about the hardness of that…. There was no one here to recognize her, the Innkeeper's daughter from the Ram's Head, but between the bitter envy of those whom hunger held close and the danger of traveling without a man's protection, she preferred to be unknown.
It is not difficult to intuit the quality of this passage. Gwyn's world is a man's world. It is also hierarchically organized according to social class. There are the Lords and the peasants. Gwyn is a peasant, but a privileged one as we will learn. In Gwyn's world a woman's choices are limited. She may choose service in the Lord's house or not, and she may choose to marry or not. Either way she ultimately will be governed by men, either the Lord of the manor or her father, and after his death her bratty younger brother. The roles women may dramatically identify themselves with as potential acts and deeds are few. Women in Gwyn's world are captured by exclusive either/ors. Her choices are false choices prescripted by the social customs of the culture into which she was born. Her life is tracked by the customs of her culture. There is also irony in this passage, especially in the first and last sentences. What it means to be strong is called into question in the first sentence, and what Gwyn might in fact prefer for herself given her immediate situation is anonymity. Irony and ironic reversal prevails throughout this novel.
We soon learn that Gwyn's family is prosperous. Her father is a prudent innkeeper who has amassed considerable wealth. As one of the waiting women remarks bitterly, "The Innkeeper at the Rams' Head lives like a Lord, fattening on the lean years" (p. 8). As a matter of fact he does exploit the poor in bad times such as the Kingdom is now in. Gwyn herself wonders, "Why should she feel badly to have warm, dry feet? Or guilty—because she felt guilty too—that she had good fortune and did nothing to share it" (p. 13). Gwyn, as it turns out, is not in the Doling Room for herself or her family; she is there for "old Megg" because her friend is too feeble to come herself. As she leaves the Doling Room, she sees an old woman and offers to accompany her home to provide safety in numbers and help her carry the load. We can already see Gwyn's character beginning to emerge. Gwyn is reflective, has emotional sympathy, and is perceptive. We can also see that there is ambiguity and tension in her and in the world within which she lives. We wonder, what will she do?
At home we learn more of Gwyn's character. Her mother observes, "If it's not your imagination that gets you into trouble it'll be your soft heart" (p. 40). Gwyn has an unconcealing imagination that is able to see beyond the actual: "Such snow, Gwyn thought, had a way of turning the world into what it was not and making it seem safe. Such snow masked the true face of the world" (p. 41). In self reflection Gwyn recognizes the difference between her and her sister Rose, who is so eager to marry: "Whatever Rose did, whatever gesture she used, there was something dainty to it. Gwyn had never seen herself, but she felt inside herself a strength that flowed down her arms and legs, she could feel it especially in her shoulders" (p. 44-45). Gwyn feels and knows that she possesses a physical strength that defies the customary gender construction in her culture. Excellencies of character, including discriminating judgment, emotional susceptibility, and force of execution are all part of Gwyn's character. It is vital to the story that these virtues are all seen as deficiencies by her family and community. Docility, unquestioning conformity, and obedience to law are the virtues customarily associated with "good" members of her social class and her gender. To be free, to know and recreate her self, Gwyn will need to go beyond the social conventions of her culture.
Gwyn has many virtues, but she still needs to grow. Voigt's heroines frequently grow by learning through relationships with males. These relationships are almost always between equals and without romance, although with a great deal of earned respect. Voigt often displays patterns of warm helpful friendship between males and females, often with significant differences in age. The relationships are typically between those whose differences are considerable, but wherein each has something that the other needs. In Jackaroo such a relationship is established between Gwyn and a young ("Almost eleven") Lordling when they become stranded in the dead of a very hard winter in an abandoned cabin.
The young Lordling, Gadrian, is ill-prepared to care for himself in such hardship. He was also accustomed to aristocratic privilege. In the case of the Lordling's needs, Gwyn's responses are prefigured by her being accustomed to caring for her brother (who in many ways is even less able to care for himself than the Lordling, although he is older) as much as it is to the necessity of serving the needs of the Lords. Whatever his deficiencies, the young Lordling has inner strength and determination to care for himself. Further, Gwyn is forced to admit to herself, "For all that he was so much younger than she was, he had a much broader knowledge of the world" (p. 125). Gadrian, like all of the ruling class, knows how to read and write, and he teaches Gwyn. Such instruction is strictly forbidden by the customs of the Kingdom. Gadrian enlarges Gwyn's world. He and his father make maps; in fact, that is how they became stranded. Gwyn and Burl, a burly servant in the Inn, had guided the Lord and Lordling to the frontiers of the land, the Lord and his son had verified some of the topography and they were on their way back when they were separated and stranded in the snow storm. The young boy knows what is beyond the mountains; Gwyn does not. That knowledge is a metaphor for the power of knowledge the Lords use to rule the peasants, and that, for all of her intuitiveness, Gwyn lacks.
Gadrian has other needs. Most of all Gwyn is able to comfort him over the recent death of his mother. If Gwyn has unusual physical strength, Gadrian displays remarkable emotional perceptiveness. As Gwyn strives to comfort Gadrian, their conversations come to have the quality of an inquiry into the meaning of life and death for both. Together they dare for the first time to address the fundamental existential questions. She also teaches him to fight with a peasant's weapon, the staff, something she is surprisingly adept at. In turn, she learns how to use a sword. Gadrian learns the virtues of hard work and being able to take care of himself, even when he does not enjoy it. They each ask one another questions they "had no right to ask" (p. 119). These questions transcend the norms of acceptable discourse between men and women as well as Lords and peasants. They both learn a great deal about the lives of the other. Gwyn has to admit, "She enjoyed his idea of her" (p. 120).
In this long interlude suspended by bitter winter from the rest of the world, Gadrian and Gwyn becomes friends and learn a great deal from and about each other and their lives. The grand questions are addressed; what is life, how should we live, and what does it mean? The answers of a Lordling and an Innkeeper's daughter are quite different. At the end both are changed. It is important that much of this "conversation" involves learning to do what the other does and care for each other's needs. There is tension and conflict in this relationship that will never go entirely away. These two people are different, but their tensions are creative, and they bestow a great deal of value upon each other because they have the moral courage to live with the conflicts.
There are two brilliant moments of radiantly clear perception for Gwyn in the novel. Neither involves critical appraisal alone. Rather, the reality of her situation is simply disclosed to her. Both of them occur either on occasions of violent death or near death. The first occurs when, at winter thaw, Gadrian and Gwyn make their way back to the Inn, where Gadrian's father has been waiting in dread that he has lost his son. Demonstrating the skills Gwyn had taught him about covering his tracks in the snow, a lesson that had resembled playing hide and seek, Gadrian rushes ahead by a different route that Gwyn cannot follow. Gadrian is a good student. When Gwyn arrives at the Inn alone, the Lord, thinking his son dead and blaming her, immediately draws his sword and places the blade to her throat fully intending to have his revenge at the cost of her life. Her family is frozen with fear and can say or do nothing. Only Burl defends her by demanding that the Lord "hear her" because Burl avers, "I know her" (p. 129). He does. We do not know what would have happened to Gwyn next, because it is at this moment that Gadrian breaks into the room. It is also at this moment that Gwyn sees through everything. It is a moment of truth, and truth can be ugly. In the same instant she loses belief in both her family and the wisdom of those that rule the Kingdom.
The unconcealment is put into words only after Gwyn has left the room and first the Lord and then Burl follow. The dialogue begins with the Lord speaking:
"How was I to Know—" "Aye, the Lords know nothing of the people—" "—when you didn't say—" "—and care little for what they know or do not know," Gwyn finished. He warned her then: "You shall not speak to me so." So Gwyn stopped speaking. She held his eyes and held her tongue. But the anger burned in her…. At last the Lord broke their silence. "I would know how the Innkeeper got such a daughter, and such a servant" he said. "The irony of it is that now you will never trust me and now you can trust me for anything."
There are many ironies and reversals in this exchange. The Lord is a little like King Lear—he only knows what he hears stated. Gwyn knows that the Lords have power over the people, but without knowledge of those they govern (something that will turn out to be far less true than it appears at the moment—Voigt is relentlessly ambivalent in her characterizations, and Gwyn's perception here is not perfect). She holds her tongue as she holds his eye. Her courage is tempered, as it should be, by prudence. There are no rules that govern such morally ambiguous situations as these, only wisdom. Power is real and dangerous for the perceptive and courageous as well as the inattentive and timid.
The dialogue continues with Burl after the Lord has left:
"You cannot be angry at them, Gwyn," Burl's voice said behind her. "They thought of what they would have done in the same situation. Later, when they had thought more they—" "Later would have been too late, wouldn't it?" Gwyn asked, surprising herself by her calm. "The Lords don't stand under the law." "They are the law." "It's their own law." "Aye. They will not want you to have seen," he advised her. Gwyn knew which they he meant. She knew also how they must be feeling now, to know they had betrayed her so: sick at heart. She was the one betrayed and she felt a death in her heart. How would they feel, being the betrayers. Well then," she said, "I will not have seen." What had been done could not be undone. What she had understood could not be forgotten. "It will be a small lie."
The loss of belief, expressed most clearly by her anger, in the depth of her family's love or the wisdom of the law of the Lords, is paradoxically liberating and it takes her past conventional good and evil. There is a death in her heart. Her comfortable habitual ways of responding to authority, her self, her personal identity has been destroyed. If love can be lost then anything can die. That it is ambiguous at first who "they" (Lords or family) are is itself revealing. The last sentence of the first half of the novel reads, "The lie would be pretending that everything had not changed" (p. 131). Gwyn has seen beyond the actual, but as yet she lacks any vision of the possible. The irony of the last line for the remainder of the book is that, having unmasked the actual situation, it is a mask that will open up the possibilities that lie beyond the good and evil of the law and love she has "known." The last sentence in the opening paragraph of the next section reads, "She wore her face like a mask" (p. 135). Similar passages are found throughout the second half of the novel where, indeed, masks of all kinds play a prominent role. Such dramatic recognition and reversal is quite common to quality literature. It is a part of self-discovery and creation.
Voigt divides her novel into halves (there are no chapter titles, just the titles of the two halves). The first half was titled "the Innkeeper's Daughter." At the end of the first half of the novel, Gwyn is not only no longer the Innkeeper's daughter, she is in the possession of no one, including herself. It is here that her inquiry into herself, and the social scripts that created the roles she has played, begins. Gwyn's search for her self, paradoxically, involves donning a mask: the mask of an outlaw, the Jackaroo. Gwyn had found the costume of the Jackaroo while she and the Lordling were stranded in old Megg's cottage. By dramatically identifying with the values the mask, and the deeds, feelings, and thoughts associated with it, Gwyn eventually recreates her self.
We learn early in the second section, simply titled "Jackaroo," that Gwyn has decided not to marry, even though her father is prepared to bestow his inheritance on her. When she made the announcement, "She understood herself…. She would not throw her days away caring for the comfort of some man who asked for a bag of twelve gold pieces, never mind the girl who came with it" (p. 141). The reference to gold is to the gift bestowed upon Gwyn by the Lord for saving his son. The gift, in conjunction with being the Innkeeper's daughter, means that Gwyn is a highly attractive catch, and that she could have her choice of available men. Gwyn might well imagine it a source of social security and independence, but, significantly, she does not. Gwyn's loss is complete. She no longer knows herself; indeed she has lost her self identity. What she does know is that she can never return to her former self. She does not want to marry and she knows it, but she is in doubt about what to do with her life and her emotions are a conscious sign of the break:
It was not that she wanted to change her mind. Far from it, although she understood her own reasons for that no better than she understood the reasons for the many other changes she felt taking place within herself. A few years earlier, when her body had so suddenly changed, she had felt awkward and uneasy, unsure; she recognized that same feeling now, but it was not her body that caused it, it was her self. Everybody seemed a stranger to her now, even the Innkeeper's daughter, Gwyn, herself.
The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing. Doubt for Dewey was a living, embodied, and impassioned condition. On such a Deweyan account we can say Gwyn's unconscious habitual ways of functioning have been disrupted, but as of yet she has no idea of what to do. The analogy to profound bodily changes during an earlier life transition for Gwyn expresses well why the search for self is as much, or more, a matter of feeling and embodiment as it is of mind. Indeed, for the Deweyan, separating the mind from the body and feelings is to construct a false dualism. Understanding such profound unconscious transformations requires sustained reflective inquiry. Gwyn's feelings of tension are yet to evolve and become more specific and nameable. Gwyn's intuitions concerning the quality of her situation are acute, and at least she knows what is conventionally lauded and rewarded is no longer possible for her even if she has no vision of what is. Before she knows how to act she will have to refine her intuitions further by attending to things in her world that seem horribly obvious, but that almost no one else notices. She has learned a lot, but her vulnerabilities have placed her at great risk. In order to figure things out, Gwyn will need to take incredible risks.
The widely accepted traditional theory of emotions, traceable at least to Charles Darwin (1873, 1901), asserts emotions precede their expression; the pattern being one of stimulus, feeling, action. William James (1890, 1950, Vol. I) constructed a theory of emotion that in effect reversed this series to get one of stimulus, action, and feeling (p. 219). For example, when we flee a dangerous situation, the action gives rise to the emotion of fear. Dewey was influenced by this view, but ultimately rejected it in favor of one in which naming a feeling was simply an abstraction from a complex emergent coordination of an active response to a needful situation.
Dewey's (1894, 1971) position was that "the mode of behavior is the primary thing, and that the idea and the emotional excitation are constituted at one and the same time; they represent the tension of stimulus and response within the coordination which makes up the mode of behavior" (p. 174). So what is this review of Dewey's theory of emotions doing here in the middle of Gwyn's deliberations about herself, her world, and what she ought to do? The answer is this: one can act intelligently without reasons.
Sometimes to know who we are, we must act according to our intuitions and imaginings and without reason. Once we do something, then we have something to reflect upon and reasons for further actions may follow:
No reason, Gwyn thought later, striding through the woods. How could she know the reasons for anything when she didn't even understand the reasons for which she was where she was, dressed as she was [as Jackaroo], and for what purpose. The high boots shielded her legs from snapping branches, the mask hung close over her face and the short red cape swung with her shoulders. Her heart sang.
Given the political institutions and rules of policy in her world, Gwyn can only find the ideal factors of morality beyond good and evil. There is prophetic wisdom and sympathetic perception in what Gwyn is about to do. What she does is give one of her gold pieces to the poor Fiddler who had come to her father but was unable to strike a deal to save his humble holdings. In the act of giving, acting behind a mask, and as an outlaw, Gwyn begins to recognize herself. From partially precognitive origins Gwyn's outlaw emotions lead to the acts of an outlaw and eventually to wise, kind, and considerate acts that lie beyond good and evil.
The lessons learned while stranded with the Lordling provide the technical skill she requires to carry out the deception. Gwyn knows how to carry herself with aristocratic swagger and speak with authority (i.e., "the cadence of Gadrian's speech") as well as aloof assertiveness (eventually the docility of the peasants before all this will begin to disturb her). Gwyn is beginning to tell the truth of the ugliness of her world to herself and to humankind in acting out the role of the outlaw hero Jackaroo. Having acted out in the world, she can begin to see herself in the reflection of others.
The excitement of the action is liberating and intoxicating to her and so later, "Gwyn allowed the laughter that had been building up to go free. She laughed aloud. The laughter flowed out into the trees and rose up into the blue sky, like a song" (p. 164). These feelings, emotions, and sense of release repeat themselves throughout the latter stages of this novel—although often with an ironic twist. I want to suggest that such emotions are especially important for prophetic and creative action beyond the limits of conventional good and evil. Unlike other creatures, we not only have feelings, we can also know them and in knowing them, in making conscious what we have and are, we can come to know ourselves and our motives, and the social customs that created them, better. Through feeling, action, and reflection, we may come to know and create our own mind. This is what happens to Gwyn when she dons the costume of and dramatically identifies herself with the outlaw role of the Jackaroo.
The feminist writer Alison M. Jagger holds a theory of emotion that closely resembles Dewey's. For both, raw feeling are innate neurophysiological states. They are vague and undirected. Feelings are merely passively had. Emotions, on the other hand, are intentional and goal-directed. For Jagger, as for Dewey, the meaning and value of our emotions, like everything that is human, is socially prescripted and "like all social constructs, they are historical products bearing the marks of the society that constructed them" (Jagger, 1989, p. 159). So what would happen if someone like Gwyn were to challenge the prevailing social construction? She would experience outlaw emotions and might even become an outlaw.
Jagger discusses "emotional hegemony and emotional subversion." Gwyn is an emotional subversive. Jagger asserts:
People who experience conventionally unacceptable, or what I call "outlaw," emotions often are subordinated individuals who pay a disproportionately high price for maintaining the status quo…. When unconventional emotional responses are experienced by isolated individuals, those concerned may be confused, unable to name their experience; they may even doubt their own sanity…. Outlaw emotions may be politically because epistemologically subversive…. Outlaw emotions are distinguished by their incompatibility with the dominant perceptions and values….
Gwyn does not know the meaning of her outlaw emotions. She seems to even doubt her own sanity, until she acts on them and the world reflects back on her the mythological role of the Jackaroo. Jagger helps us understand one other thing about Dewey's theory of emotions.
Jagger writes, "The most obvious way in which … outlaw emotions can help in developing alternatives to prevailing conceptions of reality is by motivating new investigations…. Theoretical investigation is always purposeful and observation is always selective" (p. 161). Having outlaw emotions are part of what it means to be a prophet. Jagger continues:
As well as motivating critical research, outlaw emotions may also enable us to perceive the world differently from its portrayal in conventional descriptions. They may provide the first indications that something is wrong with the way alleged facts have been constructed with accepted understandings of how things are…. We may bring to consciousness our ‘gut-level’ awareness that we are in a situation of coercion, cruelty, injustice, or danger…. [We] may make subver- sive observations that challenge dominant conceptions of the status quo.
Gwyn surely makes subversive observations as a result of her outlaw emotions, and she acts on them in ways whose consequences take her beyond conventional good and evil. In many cases it is her actions that give rise to the emotions and thoughts. What Jagger adds, though, is the idea that, "Oppressed people have a kind of epistemological privilege insofar as they have easier access to this standpoint and therefore a better chance of ascertaining the possible beginnings of a society in which all could thrive" (p. 161). I believe that Gwyn has precisely this kind of troubling, and trouble-causing, emotional perceptions. We can see it in her emotional responses at the Spring Fair, at which her sister Rose is married and the announcement that Gwyn will not marry is made.
The Fair is the second moment of radiantly clear perception for Gwyn. Again, the reality of the situation is immediately unconcealed; this time on the occasion of a violent death. In the midst of the wedding ceremony Gwyn's gaze moves up the city wall:
She caught her breath. There, at the top of the wall, a body hung from a scaffold, its head down, turning in the wind. Its hands were bound behind it, and it looked, at the distance, like a broken doll or a scarecrow…. It made Gwyn uneasy. Why would the Earl leave him up there, on this day? It was as if the hanged man were on display there, to warn, to cause fear. Who had he been? What had he done?
A scare crow, or a scare homo sapien sapiens? The perception of the man on the scaffold is one that Gwyn returns to repeatedly during her day at the fair. It is not just that she cannot stop seeing him that disturbs her most, though; it is that no one else does. Gwyn reflects:
Nobody else saw him, nobody else looked to him. Only Gwyn. And who would want such a girl for his wife, if he knew what she saw. If, Gwyn thought, there were one of these young men who also saw the hanged man, then that one she might take. But if they saw, they did not speak of it, as if by not speaking they could make it disappear, and such men Gwyn would not marry.
The irony, of which there are many in this book, is that there is a man she knows well that has seen, has even told her why the man was hanged because he knew she would want to know. For all of her amazing perception, Gwyn cannot see the love that is closest to her and that has given her ample evidence that he understands and cares for her.
Tad, in a successful effort to hurt Gwyn, blurts out, "You're not a proper girl at all. You might as well be wearing trousers and a beard" (p. 174). Gwyn is different. She is physically strong, strong enough to play the Jackaroo and get away with it, but not coquettish enough to pander to men and procure a husband. In a day of reflective self understanding, "Gwyn realized that much as she might long to fit in, she was also glad she did not. Tad had said it to hurt her, but it was the truth just the same…. She fit into this world as the hanged man did, she thought. She could not see his form where she stood, but he dangled at the edge of the fair, and she did not forget that. Let others forget" (p. 176). Gwyn cannot help seeing, and she cannot help remembering. Having awoken from the common dream, she cannot go back to sleep. You appear strange and awkward to yourself as well as others when you can no longer see as others do. It is a conflicted, complicated, and clumsy way to be.
Gwyn continues to ride as the Jackaroo, the one who rights wrongs. She finds it "odd that dressed up as Jackaroo she felt much more like herself…. she liked herself. And in the disguise, she was free to do what she really wanted to do, much freer than was Gwyn, the Innkeeper's daughter…. Gwyn had never been so pleased with her life" (p. 196). Gwyn is becoming her destiny, but the sense of exhilaration and freedom begins to fade before the ironies and paradoxes of her role in this culture. The laughter of the Jackaroo takes a bitter turn. Gwyn begins reflecting on the paradoxes of freedom.
Acting the script for the role of the Jackaroo draws out of Gwyn actions for which she did not even know she had the potential. What the role begins to demand of her, however, leads to a stunning perception. Riding as Jackaroo, she comes across robbers that have killed a woman and her husband. Upon her arrival they flee into the woods and disappear. Nearby she finds the couple's child in the bushes where he was hidden. What was Gwyn, or the Jackaroo, to do? The child needs a mother and Gwyn's older sister Blithe had lost her son and spent the last year in irreconcilable despair. Riding up to Blithe's cottage, Gwyn simply places the child on the table and declares, "Woman, you will raise this child." Blithe protests, "No … I will have none but my own son."
The Jackaroo commands with the authority of a Lord, "You will take this child and he will be your son…. He has need of you, woman" (p. 200). The command is obeyed and Blithe soon becomes firmly attached to the child. The Jackaroo saw the best possibility in a needful situation for the child, Blithe, and the Jackaroo and acted appropriately to actualize the good. What she did was necessary, but hear the irony?
Unable physically to confront the three robbers, the Jackaroo, who succeeds by daring, deception, and cunning and not physical prowess, contrives a successful plan for having them captured and hung. The Jackaroo also helps Am, the pig herder, and his daughter; but Am is a fool. By boasting about his windfall from the Jackaroo, he is robbed of it and all the rest he owned. His situation, bad before, is now desperate. His best hope is to find someone to take in his children. On this occasion, "Gwyn had no pity for him. It was his own loose tongue that had done this to him, and he felt only pity for himself. The man was spineless. The two coins had been wasted on him…. It was little use to give him gold. If she could find a fine, strong-tongued woman to drive him, that might be of use to him" (p. 225). The voice of Gwyn's father may be heard in this passage. Gwyn herself is often referred to as "Strong-tongued" in the novel. When earlier in the novel her Da offers to name her his heir instead of Tad, he nonetheless remarks, "I would want you to have a husband, to govern you" (p. 215). It becomes clear later that Tad will grow up sturdier than earlier thought, so Da asks Gwyn for her advice. She agrees that Tad could eventually learn to run the Inn well, but observes, "You must find him someone strong and steady to marry, someone who can govern him when he needs it" (p. 251). Here we start becoming trapped in the paradoxes of freedom that embroider the second half of this novel. These paradoxes are part of the fact that human beings do need each other not only to live well, but to live at all. Da and Gwyn are right, after a fashion, in what they say.
Negative freedom, freedom from constraint, obsesses us. For many it is the only kind of freedom they know. To be free for something, we must bind ourselves to it. If we answer a calling, say to teach, we are bound by the virtues of the vocation; we have no choice (although, to answer a call responsibly we must annul it). We almost never ask ourselves what it is that we wish to be free for. To be free for something, say our calling, requires that we exercise practical reason and discipline ourselves to the virtues of our vocation. Playing the socially constructed dramatic role of the Jackaroo is an exercise in positive freedom. Gwyn must become what the role demands, and one of the ironies of the master-slave dialectic is that the master must do what the slave will obey. The master has no choice. For the outlaw Jackaroo to motivate "good" slaves to do what they ought to, he or she must often exercise privileged authority and order them to obey. The narrow social narratives of the slave make it difficult to imagine alternatives, or act on them even if they do; that is one of the true horrors of oppression, the oppressed can become so accustomed to it that they often demand it. Remember how uncomfortable it has been for Gwyn to abandon her habitual forms of slavish and feminine conduct, as her cultural customs have constructed the roles. Once we enter paradoxical situations, the dialectical reversals of meaning begin to mount up. There is wisdom in Voigt's irony. Gwyn, and our, situation is quickly becoming unpleasantly complicated.
Am is a fool; nevertheless his innocent daughter is in desperate need. Gwyn ponders:
There were too many like Am among the people, too many who gave up the fight. But what could you expect, when all of life was so hard and hopeless? How could someone fight and know he never would win? And who was the enemy? Could a man fight off a long winter or a dry summer? No more than he could fight against the Lords. Aye, the people could not manage without the Lords, they were children unable to take care of themselves…. Why should Jackaroo take such risks, for such people…. Aye, she had no choice in the matter any more.
For those of you, like me, who were expecting a typical young woman's romance, things are getting surprisingly difficult. If you assume a caring social role like teaching and if you play it well, then you must do what those you care for need done. If you advance the good of a calling, say teaching, then you must accept not only that children are unable to take care of themselves, but that many adults, including your colleagues and supervisors, cannot either. You, like the Jackaroo, are often bound by the needs of others and will have no choice. We are not talking about mere negative freedom here; that is, the freedom to always do what you want. We are talking about exercising positive freedom in a resistant and imperfect world according to the virtues of your chosen vocation. Those virtues bind you to the good your vocation seeks to secure. There are no smooth hallways beyond conventional good and evil.
The reversals of self and identity begin to accelerate as this novel moves toward its conclusion. When Jackaroo next rides, it is with a double purpose: first, to disburse two more gold coins to the fool Am; and second, to free Gwyn's uncle Win. Win is a captured highwayman who had left many years before; Gwyn and the family thought he was dead. Highwaymen are "journeyed" before hanging as a warning to the people, and they had expected the highwayman at the Inn for days. It was not until he and the escort of soldiers arrived at Da's Inn that they knew who he was. Distributing funds to fools presents no problems; Win does. Upon the Jackaroo's appearance, Win begins laughing uncontrollably and with genuine joy testifies, "I thought I had laughed my last…. Oh, but life always holds one more joke. I thank you, whoever you are" (p. 231). He means it. Win had ridden as the Jackaroo. It was a heavy burden upon him, so Win wonders.
"Did you know what it meant when you put on the mask?" Gwyn shook her head, no. "Aye, you'll find it out. Maybe, if we knew, we'd never dare to put it on, and maybe that's why nobody tells that hated truth. Think you?" Gwyn had nothing to say. "Except there is need now. That much, at least, is in your favor. You ride in need. It'll make no difference in the end. Things will turn out the same"…. "Aye, because what changes putting on the mask had begun, I had myself finished. So farewell to you, Jackaroo. I pity you, with all that's left of my heart—but that's not much…. "I'm out of the trap that held me, and it's that same trap you're snared in Jackaroo…. " So she had no choice to claim her Uncle Win.
Perhaps what one learns beyond good and evil is not so lovely. Gwyn, though, is answering the call of authentic need; hers is a prophet's vision. Both Hitler and Martin Luther King had the power to create a vision. Prophecy, false or true, is usually a fatal calling. So how do we distinguish true from false prophets? Both Gwyn and Win are outlaws. Both have ridden as the Jackaroo and performed outlawed actions. What is the difference when we are beyond good and evil? It does matter that Gwyn rides with a self-eclipsing sympathetic desire to respond to the genuine need of others and not for glory, although she certainly had felt the self-assertive exhilaration that entrapped Win. It also matters that Gwyn's acts deprive her of the twelve gold pieces given her by the Lord. Gwyn cares and is a kind, giving person who bestows her bounty upon others in need. Finally, it matters that she grows under the burden. Still, the outlaw fate of the Jackaroo begins to close in and the paradoxes do mount.
The outlaw script for the dramatic role of the Jackaroo involves real risks and places Gwyn in a vulnerable position. Embracing a social role, responding to a calling, even responding responsibly as Gwyn does, has an element of fate about it. To perform any social role correctly we must do, feel, and think what the customs of the culture require of the costume. To be a good teacher, we must embrace the virtues of the vocation and strive to become, each in our own unique way, what it is to be a good practitioner. The demands of being a good teacher can often cause value conflicts. We must make difficult, even tragic, choices. When the values of good teaching and good practice, including the ethics of caring, conflict with the rules of policy within a bureaucratic community, or the ethics of justice, then good teachers must often go beyond good and evil as "currently condemned or outlawed." Whether to break the law or people is a tragic choice that arises because the rule governed ethics of justice and the ethics of care are sometimes incommensurable. Good teachers are often outlaws that violate, at least the intent if not the letter, of laws, regulations, and rules of policy to actualize the values of their vocation. Many teachers have lied, or at least bent the truth, to do the right thing by their students. The more oppressive the law, the more imaginative must be the prophetic responses that create alternative values. On such occasions the artful teacher is being more moral than the moralities. Wisdom sometimes goes beyond an exclusively rule driven ethics of justice; that is, it sometimes goes beyond good and evil.
Win's words require Gwyn to reflect upon what she has become through her acts:
He had been telling the truth, she understood that…. Knowing herself, she knew she could not … hide the masquerade away forever. She would ride as she was riding now, without any joy…. She would ride as she was riding now, in darkness, because she was an outlaw. Jackaroo rode outside of the law, and that was why the Lords wanted to take him. The law couldn't hold Jackaroo. He would do what he wanted and that made him an outlaw. Gwyn could never have chosen to be an outlaw. She hadn't chosen that, she and only chosen to do what good she could, for people. It was just as Mother said, she had too much imagination, too soft a heart. She had not known what she was choosing. But even if she had known, Gwyn knew that she would have chosen the same. This knowledge was not sweet, not joyful….
Before the first dawn showed at the rim of the sky, Gwyn was back in her own room with nobody—except her—the wiser.
Gwyn has chosen to become her destiny. We each grow to the largest limit we can attain without despair. There is only so much disharmony, only so much destruction of personal identity that we can take at any one time. Gwyn's losses are accumulating with her wisdom. In losing herself she has grown wise. It is hard to move agilely in the world when you are coming out of your skin, or when you are caught between two worlds. Teachers need to remember this when they tell students they must have the right values. Those values may not be the values of family and friends, and how do we know we have the right values? If Dewey is correct, then, altering habits means altering your identity and that can be very difficult and very painful. How would you like to live without support of family or friends? We are on treacherous ground.
Part of Gwyn's fate, part of growing wise, is to understand the larger pattern and rhythms of life. The Jackaroo can do what she or he wants outside the law, but, paradoxically, with little choice. Gwyn asks Burl, "Is there any reason … why any one man should serve another? (p. 248). Burl finds no reason; he only observes that it is so. Gwyn ponders this:
"It's like a child's rhyme, Buri. The land serves the people, the people serve the Lords, the Lords serve the Earls, the Earls serve the King, and the King serves the land"…. Even Jackaroo, Gwyn thought to herself, fit into that circle. He served the people. He served them outside of the law, but within the turning of the wheel.
Even in oppressive regimes everyone needs everyone else. That is part of what makes the master-slave dialectic so vicious and corrupting for all that participate. Without the hope provided by the almost mythical Jackaroo to relieve their suffering, the people might find it unbearable. They might either rebel, or lacking the energy, just give up in despair and refuse to work. Besides, without outlaws there would be less need for soldiers; and, without soldiers it would be harder to create the fear necessary to govern as the Lords see fit. Like adolescent rebellion, simply negating oppressive laws is not real freedom. We are still bound by the laws we negate. Real freedom requires prophetic and poetic creation.
Eventually, through her own fatuous daring, an innocent person is falsely accused of being the Jackaroo. Events move quickly from here as identities begin to change so rapidly that this reader at least found it difficult to follow the action. For my part I felt a bit of the nausea that must come to the Jackaroo in his, or her, confused identity. Only an appearance by the "real" Jackaroo will save the innocent individual; but Gwyn is caught unawares by the swiftness with which the Lord will carry out the hanging. Just in time someone appears as the Jackaroo. She recognizes that it is Burl, although in a costume she does not recognize. Burl's getaway is dangerous and difficult, so Gwyn must intervene in her own masked costume. It is at this moment when she cannot reason out her course of action carefully in advance that Gwyn realizes "exactly how ill-prepared she was for the role she was playing" (p. 259). It is rather like that first day in one's own class all alone.
Nearly fatally injured, Burl rescues her. We learn that Burl's costume for the Jackaroo once belonged to Gwyn's Granda. In another complicated turn, Gadrian's father, a Lord that in the aftermath of the southern revolution had become one of the two Earls of the Kingdom, appears himself as the Jackaroo. The demand is that the Innkeeper convey to the Earl (the Lord that had become the Earl that was now riding as the Jackaroo) the Jackaroo's desire that the Innkeeper take "before his Lord [the Earl] the needs and requests of the people and any of their quarrels that the Lord must settle" (p. 271). These are glad tidings of better times.
If you find all of these rapid changes of the Jackaroo's identity a farce, then you may have some haunting sense of what Win found so frightfully funny. The tragic and comic masks are the same; one is just the other upside down. On adolescent bodies undergoing rapid growth, facial blemishes may appear suddenly minutes before a date. Understanding these rapid and jarring reversals provides us with a better idea of what it is like to be young and still growing, where your identity changes so rapidly that you cannot tell who you are, much less who those around you are. Perhaps you also understand why most people stop growing so early.
Gwyn wonders about the Lord, now the Earl of Sutherland, appearing as the Jackaroo:
She had not thought that the Lords, too, would go outside their own laws to ride as Jackaroo. What had Gadrian's father given up to ride as Jackaroo? Unless it was only the Lords who could ride outside of the law safely, and that was why any of the people who did must pay—for their high dreams, for taking a Lord's high place….
It is significant that, according to the customary scripts of this culture, any Lord or Earl who would do good by the people would have to go beyond the law that they themselves make. What are we to make of all of these Jackaroos? Burl realizes that the costumes must be all over the Kingdom, and in any case easy to tailor to fit anyone that has the potential to answer the call. The role of the Jackaroo, the role of the outlaw that lives beyond good and evil, seems to be a character that the land needs.
The novel ends with an irony that captures well some of the paradoxes of freedom. The Lord has seen through Gwyn's mask; so too has Burl and even her younger brother Tad. In the convoluted ending of the novel, Gwyn must disappear. She is sent to the edge of her world. The people assume that she ran off with one of her suitors, Cam. That is their script for the vanishing of healthy head-strong young women possessing gold pieces. Gwyn hides behind this one last lie, and obeys the Lord's command that she live happily ever after. The Lord commands Gwyn and Burl to live in and restore, with ample funds provided, a hunting lodge at the frontiers of his lands. She starts to object, but when she looks into the Lord's eyes she reflects:
This was the man … who had fled the intrigues of his father's court to put himself under the protection of the King, letting his brothers slaughter one another in their greed. Now he gathered up their inheritance for his own. He was also the man … who had ridden as Jackaroo, for the sake of the people. He was a man to respect and fear and trust.
Gwyn obeys reluctantly like a student obeying a respected teacher. The last order the Lord gives requires that Gwyn marry Burl. This is a romance after all. You probably had already guessed it. Myself, I didn't until almost the very end. Yet I should have remembered that Burl stood up for Gwyn when her family would not because he knew her, and Gwyn overlooked the plain fact that Burl saw the hanging man. Indeed, it was Burl that volunteered to her why he was hanged without being asked because he knew she would want to know. The Lord must command this extraordinarily perceptive young woman to see what is closest and most dear to her, and the man that by her own remarkable rules of policy she had said to herself she would marry if he could be found. So Gwyn completes the rhythm of her long journey only to return to that which is most familiar to her, and to see it for the first time. She marries the man of her dreams. In disciplining her to her own greatest good, the Lord is Gwyn's friend. It is crucial of course that Gwyn see it for herself. If teachers discipline their students in any other way, then they have fallen short of realizing the best possibility in the situation. Once we see our students' best possibility, we have no choice. If we are free to do what we want, then the virtues of the practice will demand that we do our best to help our students see the possibilities for their selves and strive to actualize them.
Freedom, I want to suggest, is the freedom to grow in healthy relationship with others to the widest expanse we can obtain without despair, and that we are most free when we are bound by the greatest good that it is within our unique potential to obtain. We are free if we can perceive the best possibility for ourselves and others in any given situation, and if we act intelligently to obtain it. Freedom is right action and the greatest weight to bear. Teachers, especially language arts teachers, must have the prophetic power to intelligently perceive a student's best possibility and be willing to act poetically in a way that may carry them beyond good and evil.
Dewey (1934, 1987) concludes Art as Experience by affirming the primacy of the aesthetic encounter with these words from the poet Browning:
But Art, wherein man speaks in no wise to man,
Only to mankind—Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, do the deed shall breed the thought.
The artifice of costume and theatrical masking are superficial clues to the disclosive and transformative power of the poetic art Gwyn took up, and the prophetic work Voigt has created. Good teachers must be both poets and prophets and go where their calling demands.
Darwin, Charles (1873, 1901). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, second edition, London: John Murray, 1873, 1901.
Dewey, John. "The Theory of Emotion," In Jo Ann Boydston, (Ed.) John Dewey: The Early Works, Volume 4, Southern Illinois Press, 1894, 1971.
Dewey, John. "Art as Experience" In Jo Ann Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 10. Southern Illinois University Press, 1934, 1987.
Jagger, Alison M. "Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology," In Alison M. Jagger and Susan R. Bordo, Gender, Body/Knowledge. Rutgers University Press, 1989.
James, William. The Principles of Psychology. Volume I. Dover Publications, 1890, 1950.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. (1978, 1994). The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Southern Illinois University Press, 1978, 1994.
Voigt, Cynthia. Jackaroo. Atheneum, 1985.
SONS FROM AFAR (1987)
Stephen Schwandt (review date November-December 1987)
SOURCE: Schwandt, Stephen. Review of Sons from Afar, by Cynthia Voigt. Five Owls 2, no. 2 (November-December 1987): 29.
In Cynthia Voigt's new novel [Sons from Afar ], the latest chapter of the continuing Tillerman family saga, she takes James Tillerman, now fifteen, and his brother Sammy, twelve, on a painfully slow, convoluted, even contrived journey back into the dark of the past and themselves as they search for their lost father. Like Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, Voigt has apparently created an ingenious plot that mirrors her theme. The telling of this tale frustrates readers with the same kinds of false starts, time-consuming irrelevancies, and wordy speeches that sidetrack James and Sammy as they wander the East Coast looking for a father who deserted them years ago without ever marrying their mother.
Even the seemingly incredible impulse to begin the journey is probably part of the structure, one that echoes and enacts the reality of all such spontaneous, symbolic quests. Why would James Tillerman, who has evidently never before concerned himself with finding his runaway dad, who has hardly even asked enough about him in the past to know where to start looking, suddenly become consumed with this pursuit? Because he is a self-admitted "dork." He makes this claim so often and so obsessively that clearly we're meant to realize he's saying much more than he knows.
While James, then, may think he's simply acknowledging the truth of himself (i.e., that he embodies the current slang meaning of dork: a silly, self-pitying, self-absorbed twit), it's entirely possible that Voigt expects us to know that dork is also a form of the root dor-khar, which means something like "haunted exile." So James Tillerman is a dork, the same way that Conrad's Charlie Marlow is a dork, the same way that all questers after inscrutable visions are dorks, at least in the eyes of the "normal" world.
Even the inconclusive ending of Voigt's book perfectly completes the archetypal endless-wanderer plot. After all their detective work, after all the frustration caused by their pace-killing trips to school, baseball practice, jobs, other kids' homes, after all the belabored conversations they have with friends, other siblings, and even each other, what are James and Sammy allowed to discover? Not their actual father, but only his image, and a hopeless image it is.
The man was a cheat who robbed the boys' mother of marriage, his merchant seaman pals of their money, and his sons of a meaningful and decisive dénouement. Like many such questers, like the readers who have shared the feelings of frustration purposely enacted by this brilliantly glacial and meandering search, James and Sammy Tillerman are ironically left where they started, empty-handed and in darkness.
TREE BY LEAF (1988)
Susan Patron (review date March-April 1988)
SOURCE: Patron, Susan. Review of Tree by Life, by Cynthia Voigt. Five Owls 2, no. 4 (March-April 1988): 59-60.
Clothilde, her mother, and siblings live in a farmhouse on a rugged Maine peninsula; it's July 1920. In the beginning of this strongly realized novel [Tree by Leaf ], the servant asks whether Clothilde's father—just returned from the Great War and living in seclusion on another part of the peninsula—is "in a bad way." She means, Has the war deranged or crazed him like some of the other returning soldiers? Clothilde shakes her head no, answers "yes," shrugs her shoulders and says, "I don't know." Her father's face has been hideously disfigured in the war, and given his self-exile from the family, perhaps he has been hurt in his heart as well. She is frightened and doesn't know how to make herself safe.
A bright twelve-year-old, Clothilde has trouble figuring out how God could have done such a wonderful job creating "land and trees, oceans, mountains, is- lands, and the firmament with its two great lights" but not so good a job with people. She often thinks of what she would do if she were God.
Because her brother has run away to Grandfather (who ostracizes Mother for her lack of social standing) and because there is little money, Clothilde takes on the task of maintaining what is left of the family. Mother becomes a little unglued and preoccupied with acting like a "lady"; sister Dierdre is only three. Clothilde gathers clams and mussels, cooks and launders and gardens and wishes she were a boy. If she were a boy, very little would be expected of her; she certainly wouldn't have to work so hard.
Voigt explores the mind and feelings of her protagonist exhaustively. The pressures of Clothilde's responsibilities and her fears about the disintegration of the family press down so strongly that she feels like an egg about to be crushed. Juxtaposed with the girl's sorrow, frustration, and wild anger are vividly described scenes of the natural environment. The flora and fauna, the weather, the sea, and even the earth of the harsh Maine setting become kin to her inner self. "It was a force of feeling pushed up through her like the force that drove rocks up through the surface of the land."
Children sometimes talk to God in books, but few writers have the mettle to record God's replies. Clothilde answers a kind of summons, a knocking at her window that sounds as if it's made by a huge, heavy hand, a hand "making itself as gentle as possible." she finds herself impelled to the headlands, where she converses with a Voice. God explains that it is not she who was summoned, but she who knocked upon God's door. Unchastened, she asks why there are wars. "The design is mine; the embellishments are yours. I do not make wars; men do." Subdued but desperate, Clothilde makes four requests of God.
In fairy-tale fashion, Clothilde's wishes come true, but not at all in the way she had meant them to. Feeling responsible for unforeseen disasters that occur, she grapples with guilt, with the knowledge that she has used self-interest when speaking with God. (In a later conversation, God removes responsibility from Clothilde. She is assured that, since people have the freedom to choose, their destinies result from their own choices.)
This powerful novel, which sometimes gives the illusion that time is unfolding in the story almost at the rate of real time, reaffirms the redeeming power of love in the face of brutality and hardship. It is inner-directed, written with a kind of heightened intensity. The characters experience the pain of being shunned, excluded, or banished; those who prevail find acceptance through accepting themselves and others. Thoughtful readers will be moved by Clothilde's struggle and share her triumph.
BAD, BADDER, BADDEST (1997)
Elizabeth Poe (review date winter 1998)
SOURCE: Poe, Elizabeth. Review of Bad, Badder, Baddest, by Cynthia Voigt. ALAN Review 25, no. 2 (winter 1998): 28.
Michelle Angela (Mikey) Elsinger and Margalos Epps, of Bad Girls fame, are back [in Bad, Badder, Baddest ]; and their friendship is as strong, tumultuous, and entertaining as ever. Mikey is distressed because her parents are talking divorce, and she does not want them to ruin her life by making her move again. She and Margalo attempt various strategies to save the Elsingers' marriage. Mikey tries to lessen the strain in her parents' relationship by living up to her middle name and becoming the perfect child. When this plan fails, she decides to cause havoc by running away. This act does not work either. In fact, it brings her parents' problems to a head because Gianette St. Etienne, the new (and very bad) girl in their sixth-grade class, blackmails Mr. and Mrs. Elsinger with information about Mikey and Margalo's whereabouts. Mikey's parents do end up separating, but Mikey will not have to change schools and can remain best friends with Margalo.
Readers who enjoyed Bad Girls will welcome these eleven-year-olds' perspectives on their parents' relationships.
Mary M. Burns (review date January-February 2000)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of Elske, by Cynthia Voigt. Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 1 (January-February 2000): 85-6.
The last book in the "Kingdom Series" (which began with Jackaroo [rev. 3/86]), Elske is definitely a novel for sophisticated readers. The situations are ethically thorny; the characterizations are subtle; the style and length are demanding; the plot more complex than either Jackaroo or On Fortune's Wheel (rev. 5/90). Yet, for the right reader, it will be an engrossing experience, for it is an adventure story with a strong and resourceful heroine; it is also a story of an unusual personality with the capacity to grow and change. As the novel opens, Elske has, with the help of her grandmother, escaped her fate as the Death Maiden, chosen to accompany the dead Volkking into the hereafter via horrific rituals practiced by a brutal, male-dominated society. On her subsequent journey, she meets merchants from the more civilized Trastad who bring her to their country, where she becomes a servant and, despite her low status, a trusted member of the community. Because she is literate and versed in several dialects, she is assigned to serve Beriel, the would-be Queen of the Kingdom. As the two begin to know each other, Elske learns that Beriel is pregnant because of a rape plotted by her ambitious brother's minions. How to disguise this fact and how to dispose of the evidence after the baby's birth becomes Elske's problem to solve discreetly and mercifully. It is at this point that the conflict between her former life (where children were disposable) and her growing awareness of the value of life is manifested in an inner debate over the fate of the infant. When the situation is resolved, Elske chooses to follow Beriel in the quest to regain her throne. It is one of the strengths of the author's understanding of her characters that Beriel, although not the central figure, is so unusual a personality—dominating yet vulnerable, demanding yet fair, distant yet emotional. Elske and she are foils for each other, an unbeatable pairing, which enhances both portrayals. This is not just another adventure featuring a warrior maiden; it is challenging and thoughtful. With an epilogue summarizing the subsequent history of the kingdom.
IT'S NOT EASY BEING BAD (2000)
Publishers Weekly (review date 27 November 2000)
SOURCE: Review of It's Not Easy Being Bad, by Cynthia Voigt. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 48 (27 November 2000): 77.
In the third novel about Mikey and Margalo [It's Not Easy Being Bad ], heroines of Bad Girls and Bad, Badder, Baddest, Newbery Medalist Voigt demonstrates that, indeed, it's not easy being bad: Mikey and Margalo, now in junior high, are working overtime at their schemes and plots and machinations. Unfortunately, Voigt seems to be having difficulty, too: despite many scathingly witty moments and sharp insights here, elements of the story feel trumped up. Previously unfettered by their peers' opinions, Mikey and Margalo are forced to reconsider their maverick behavior when they enter the brave new world of seventh grade. As Margalo puts it, "It's not really being popular I want. I just want not to be unpopular." But when Mikey's ill-considered plan to ingratiate herself with the popular crowd backfires, both girls are out for revenge. A sample: Margalo takes to heartily greeting Rhonda, a ringleader of the popular girls, by calling her "Barbie"; when Rhonda is flirting with an eighth-grade boy, Margalo humiliates her with, "And I see you brought Ken to school with you today." Voigt, however, starts striking false notes. Margalo, for example, is now billed as clever at fashion, able to assemble fantastic looks from thrift-store shopping, but the author lacks the girlygirl enthusiasm of, say, a Phyllis Reynolds Naylor or a Caroline Cooney to credibly integrate Margalo's sudden stylishness into the story line. Readers will know the attention to clothes is akin to a gun in Act One of a play, and sure enough, Margalo's prize thrift-store purchase turns out to be a popular girl's mom's discard. While more intelligent than most similarly themed middle-grade fiction, this Mikey and Margalo installment doesn't stand up to its predecessors. Ages 9-13.
BAD GIRLS IN LOVE (2002)
Lauren Adams (review date September-October 2002)
SOURCE: Adams, Lauren. Review of Bad Girls in Love, by Cynthia Voigt. Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 5 (September-October 2002): 582.
Readers of Voigt's previous Bad Girls books can probably guess how Mikey and Margalo will each approach her first serious crush. Mikey goes after popular Shawn Macavity "the same way she went for an overhead smash, whap, as hard as she could." Margalo, on the other hand, handles her crush on her science teacher with her usual subtlety, keeping her feelings so private that not even Mikey guesses her secret until the very end. The novel [Bad Girls in Love ] opens with Mikey being knocked senseless by her sudden infatuation ("Week One: Girl Meets Boy) and closes the moment she finds herself—just as suddenly—over him ("Week Four: Girl Gets On with It"). Voigt explores the dynamics of eighth-grade society during those four weeks—the plotting and planning of first romantic endeavors, the seeking of infor- mation from those with some apparent experience. Bad Girls fans may miss Mikey and Margalo's usual conspiring as they experience "lurve" separately. But unrequited love is necessarily a solitary pursuit, and our heroes remain true to their unique selves throughout. Tomboy Mikey may appear at school in startlingly feminine clothes to attract Shawn's attention, but her bulldozer style of courting him keeps her far outside his circle of giggling admirers. Margalo remains as poised as ever, soaking up potentially useful information while never revealing a thing. Voigt realistically conveys the heartache of first infatuation with compassion and without bleakness: that Mikey and Margalo will survive their disappointments is never in question.
THE ROSIE STORIES (2003)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 November 2003)
SOURCE: Review of The Rosie Stories, by Cynthia Voigt, illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 21 (1 November 2003): 1314.
Rosie is a little dog with a giant appetite [in The Rosie Stories ]. Whether she's "cleaning up" a cereal spill or proudly knocking over the trash can and scrounging through the contents, she has one thing on her mind: food. But, her family loves her, even when she's a "bad dog." Duff and Jessie, the children in Rosie's family, are crazy about their little dog, and Rosie returns the love. Voigt's dog's-eye view gives words to Rosie's incessant barking—"Eat!" "Nag!" "Breakfast!"—and the exclamation points that punctuate each bark let the reader know who's in charge. Short, snappy sentences add to the sense of yippy little dog. Smith's lively color illustrations show Rosie, the big-headed (and big-hearted) Jack Russell terrier, with all the emotions and expressions befitting a dog of her energy and intelligence. The repeated words, familiar situations, and frequent illustrations will lead Rosie to many new readers, while entertaining experienced readers, too. For dog lovers of all ages. Good dog, Rosie! (Fiction. 6-9)
ANGUS AND SADIE (2005)
Carol Schene (review date May 2005)
SOURCE: Schene, Carol. Review of Angus and Sadie, by Cynthia Voigt, illustrated by Tom Leigh. School Library Journal 51, no. 5 (May 2005): 141.
Gr. 4-6—Two border collie puppies adopted by a Maine farm couple try to decipher what Mister and Missus really want and how to fulfill their role as faithful and useful companions [in Angus and Sadie ]. The pups are polar opposites. Angus is an alpha male with an abundance of self-confidence. Sadie is submissive, introspective, and dominated by her brother. Of course, Mister quickly believes that Angus is the more talented of the pair but Missus reassures Sadie that she is special, too. When Angus's bossiness reaches a peak, Sadie proves to be courageous and smart and he begins to respect her. There is an old-fashioned style to this story about the different personality traits in siblings and learning to respect those differences. The drama is slight—a sheep or two are rescued and two cat bullies are put in their place. Although Sadie is a very sympathetic character, Angus's cockiness borders on annoying, and Mister's attention to him at Sadie's expense seems chauvinistic. The leisurely pace of this story and lack of action may limit its appeal to only the most ardent dog-story enthusiasts.
BAD GIRLS, BAD GIRLS: WHATCHA GONNA DO? (2006)
Janis Flint-Ferguson (review date July 2006)
SOURCE: Flint-Ferguson, Janis. Review of Bad Girls, Bad Girls: Whatcha Gonna Do?, by Cynthia Voigt. Kliatt 40, no. 4 (July 2006): 15.
[Bad Girls, Bad Girls: Whatcha Gonna Do?, ] Voigt's latest novel in the series that started with Bad Girls, when Mikey and Margalo were in the 5th grade, follows the 9th-grade experiences of the two friends. In this novel they find themselves entering the world of high school, complete with bullies, beauties, jocks and geeks. Mikey has carefully calculated the number of days and weeks they have until the end of their first year, and throughout she reminds Margalo and the students gathered at their lunchroom table just how many days are left. The story follows the girls as they first address the bullying their friend Hadrian Klenk endures. Margalo is sure that if he could find a place for himself in the drama club, eventually the high school juniors who terrorize him will disappear. Which is what happens—but with the unexpected outcome that Hadrian is very good on stage. When Margalo has money stolen from her backpack, the girls take on a problem of a different sort. And then there is Mikey's battle to make the varsity tennis team. When she openly defies the coach's suggestions, she is benched and then dismissed from the team altogether. It takes much work to be reinstated and the result is a bittersweet victory. Through it all the girls count on each other. YA readers will appreciate the enduring friendship that pervades the novels in the series, and may also relate to the problems the girls experience.
Clegg, Luther Bryan. "The Runner." In Beacham's Guide to Young Adult Literature, Volume 8, edited by Kirk H. Beetz, pp. 3929-37. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, Inc., 1994.
Focuses on the internal struggles of Bullet, the primary protagonist of The Runner.
Cline, Ruth. "Family Relationships as Found in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Cynthia Voigt's The Runner." In Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, edited by Joan F. Kaywell, pp. 79-92. Norwood, Mass.: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc., 1993.
Study of family interaction in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Cynthia Voigt's The Runner.
Henke, James T. "Dicey, Odysseus, and Hansel and Gretel: The Lost Children in Voigt's Homecoming." Children's Literature in Education 16, no. 1 (March 1985): 45-52.
Comments on the influence of "Hansel and Gretel" and The Odyssey upon Homecoming.
Jameson, Gloria. "The Triumph of the Spirit in Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming, Dicey's Song, and A Solitary Blue." In Triumphs of the Spirit in Children's Literature, edited by Francelia Butler and Richard Rotert, pp. 3-14. Hamden, Conn.: Library Professional Publications, 1986.
Argues that Voigt utilizes classical archetypes in the first three books in her Tillerman series—Homecoming, Dicey's Song, and A Solitary Blue.
Saunders, Laura S. "Lingering with Dicey: Robin's Song." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 40, no. 7 (April 1997): 548-57.
Case study about the effect of Dicey's Song on an adolescent reader.
Voigt, Cynthia, and Shirley M. Jordan. "Cynthia Voigt." In Broken Silences: Interviews with Black and White Women Writers, edited by Shirley M. Jordan, pp. 253-70. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Voigt discusses interracial relationships, particularly as evidenced in the friendship between Mina and Dicey of the "Tillerman" series.
Additional coverage of Voigt's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 3, 30; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 7, 8; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 13, 48; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 106; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 18, 37, 40, 94, 145; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 30; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 48, 79, 116, 160; Something about the Author—Brief, Vol. 33; and Writers for Young Adults.