(Born Natalie Zane Moore) American illustrator and author of juvenile novels, juvenile fiction, and picture books.
The following entry presents commentary on Babbitt's juvenile novel Tuck Everlasting (1975) through 2001. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volumes 2 and 53.
A story of the implications of eternal life, Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting (1975) is a young adult fantasy that explores the intersections of mortality and morality. In many respects a throwback to turn-of-the-century parable stories, Babbitt's best known work combines aspects from the fairy tale, folk tale, and pastoral traditions in its telling of ten-year-old Winnie Foster's discovery and eventual rescue of the fantastical Tuck clan located in the deep woods near her home. Despite an easy narrative style and relative brevity, Tuck Everlasting has maintained a broader cultural relevancy for its exploration of deeper issues like the relative values of life, death, loyalty, and love. A 1995 Phoenix Award Honor Book, the book has never been out of print and has been the subject of several screen adaptations, most recently by Walt Disney Films in 2001.
Babbitt was born on July 28, 1932, in Dayton, Ohio, to Ralph Moore, a business administrator and labor relations manager, and his wife Genevieve. Her family had auspicious ancestors, including renowned explorers Isaac Zane and Zebulon Pike, for whom Pike's Peak in Colorado was named. Though Babbitt demonstrated stronger artistic than literary inclinations as a child, nonetheless, like many children's authors, she and her sister were read to nightly as young children by their mother. Her art remained her primary focus throughout her childhood and adolescence at the Laurel School for Girls and eventually at Smith College, where she graduated with an art degree, While Babbitt had taken fashion illustration classes at the Cleveland School of Art prior to her enrollment at Smith, she preferred the less constraining, artistic, and competitive environment of college. In 1954 she married her college boyfriend, Samuel Babbitt, who went on to become a university administrator for several universities, including Yale, Vanderbilt, Brown, and Kirkland College, where he served as school president. In the early years of her marriage, Babbitt decided to concentrate her efforts upon her nascent family, caring for the couple's three children and freely moving when her husband's career demanded it. Eventually she found inspiration in Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, from which she determined that while she was happy as a caregiver and wife, she would be unfulfilled if she continued to neglect the full reach of her aptitudes, particularly her artistic gifts. Embarking upon a career as an illustrator, her first published effort was for her husband's The Forty-Ninth Magician (1966). In the following years, she released her first independently written works, two self-illustrated picture books of children's poems called Dick Foote and the Shark (1967) and Phoebe's Revolt (1968). Her first longer children's book, The Search for Delicious (1969), was chosen by the New York Times as the best children's book of 1969 for 9- to 12-year-olds, with her subsequent novel, Knee-Knock Rise (1970), becoming a Newbery Honor Book. Her rapid ascent in children's literature continued with other major awards soon following, including a National Book Award nomination for The Devil's Storybook (1974) and a Christopher Award for Tuck Everlasting, which remains perhaps her best-known work. A George G. Stone Award-winner for her career efforts, she resides in Rhode Island, where her husband works as an actor and she serves as a board member on the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance, a national non-profit organization that promotes literacy, literature, and libraries.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
Set in 1881, Tuck Everlasting takes place over four August days in the isolated town of Treegap in the Adirondack mountains. Ten-year-old Winnie Foster lives in the protective bubble of her overly-worried parents, but yearns for exploration and adventure. In that spirit, she wanders into the mystical ancient woods owned by her family from which she has been repeatedly barred from entering. Following a toad deep into the woods, she surprises a young man sitting next to a spring. This young man and his brother kidnap Winnie and bring her to their father, Angus Tuck, who tells the girl about their unhappy plight. Eighty-seven years ago, the Tuck family—which consists of Angus, his wife Mae, and their sons Miles and Jesse—drank from the spring Winnie had stumbled upon earlier only to learn it granted the dubious gift of eternal life. Now trapped eternally at the ages they were when they drank from the spring, the Tucks have struggled with their immortality; Miles, the older son, has a mortal family that Angus has prohibited from benefitting from the spring, while Jesse is forever seventeen and unable to mature past his adolescence. In the years since they discovered their eternal natures, the family has each traveled apart from one another, reuniting once every ten years. Before long, the police find Winnie with the Tucks, and she lies to protect them, saying she went with them voluntarily. She soon returns to the Tuck cabin, admiring their free ways and familial love for each other, despite their seemingly rough and foreign ways. However, she is followed to the cabin by a nameless man in a yellow suit, who has longed to find the Tuck's secret and bottle their immortality for profit. Cornering and intimidating a terrified Winnie, he threatens her with forced immortality before Mae rescues the girl by killing her assailant with a rifle butt. However, her protective gesture comes with a cost: Mae is to be executed by hanging for killing the yellow-suited man, which, since she cannot die, will expose her family's secret. Deciding to help her new friends, Winnie aids Mae escape from prison, posing as the woman in jail so that she may get away from her persecutors. Before the Tucks leave, an infatuated Jesse gives her a vial of the spring's water and encourages her to drink it when she turns seventeen and join him in immortality, leaving Winnie to ponder the implications of their potential gift. While considering the idea, she drips some of the water onto a toad—possibly the same one who initially led her to the Tucks—granting it safety and eternal protection. Eighty years later, Angus returns to Treegap cemetery to visit the grave of their dear friend Winnie, who had died two years previous at an advanced age. Standing next to her grave, he salutes her, saying only "Good girl." The spring now destroyed, Winnie has both protected their secret for the duration of her long life and, perhaps more importantly, resisted the temptation of Jesse's gift.
Ultimately a treatise on the implications of immortality, Tuck Everlasting nevertheless offers a series of contrasts regarding community, freedom, and the very nature of life and death. Angus Tuck describes his family as effectively falling off the wheel of life, for which they are doomed to watch the world evolve and pass them by while they remain trapped physically at a specific age. This is especially difficult for his two sons who each have their own related torments: Miles has taken a family who are aging without him, despite his petitions to his father to let them drink the water of immortality, whereas Jesse is trapped in his adolescence. While Miles suffers in the knowledge that he will eventually lose those he loves, part of Jesse's curse is the inability to recognize what he has lost. This confusion lends itself to one of the book's strongest contrasts: where Jesse pushes Winnie to join him in the potential joys of perpetual adolescence, Angus continually warns the girl about the curse of eternal life. The man in the yellow suit, of whom there are insinuations of devilish symbolism, represents a third dynamic—that of amoral desire. Together, they personify three distinct choices for Winnie, two of which embody dark temptation. Jesse's proposition can be equated to an eternal lack of responsibility while the forbidding man in the yellow suit's offer is one of wealth and power, but at a dark cost. It is a testament to Winnie's emotional development that she is able to see the truth in Angus' words that the spring represents more curse than blessing. Her eventual death, albeit after a long and presumably happy life, is a signal of her growth that indicates a significant evolution from the little sheltered girl with the controlling parents to whom the reader was introduced. Indeed, Babbitt's characterization of death as a happy outcome, Joseph O. Milner has suggested, provides a means of unexpected relief for its juvenile readership, having "ironically banished the anxiety surrounding death and the concomitant hope for eternal life by making death life-giving."
In addition to its parabolic elements about life and death, the book is further replete with fairy tale echoes. The text follows a familiar pattern, starting with Babbitt's description of Winnie's home in castle-and-keep metaphors to its location next to a magical and forbidding ancient forest. From there, indications of fairy tale framework are further evidenced in Winnie's adoption of an animal familiar—the toad—who leads her to the means of her freedom from the imprisonment of home, a freedom that comes as a result of Winnie's discovery of the spring and the free- spirited Tuck family. Despite the story's lack of actual fairies, Babbitt's narrative voice evokes a mystical quality that exposes its folk tale origins. Details like the ash tree from which the magical water springs forth to the sinister descriptions of the unnamed yellow-suited man, who has symbolic intimations of death hovering in Babbitt's descriptions of him, combine with the hero motifs of Winnie's journey to create a familiar pattern born from fairy tales, one with which Babbitt's readers would already have an innate understanding.
At the time of its release, Tuck Everlasting was both a popular and critically well-received novel, ultimately being placed on several year-end "best book" lists, including those released by the American Library Association (ALA), the Horn Book editors, the International Reading Association, and the Congress of the International Board on Books for Young People. In addition, it has received a Christopher Award for juvenile fiction and a Phoenix Honor Book Award in 1995 from the Children's Literature Association. As with many of Babbitt's novels, critics have lauded the book for offering an uncomplicated narrative voice that is at once comforting and insightful. Tim Wynne-Jones, in highlighting the book's possible iconic status for Horn Book, has commended the timelessness of Babbitt's story, suggesting it was written "with flawless style, in words that are exact and simple and soothing and right." Betsy Hearne has similarly praised Babbitt's abilities as a wordsmith, asserting that the author "crafts words into places, people, and events that seem to have emerged from an untrampled imagination." Kathleen Odean has called Tuck Everlasting a "beautifully written story" that is "a magical novel that draws the reader into the world of Winnie and the Tucks, and raises the perplexing question that Winnie will have to answer someday: Do you want to live forever?" Reviewer Jon C. Stott has compared the story to an impressionist painting where the "images, characters, and actions combine to create a picture that is both beautiful and profound in its vividness, vitality, and depth."
As Author and Illustrator
Dick Foote and the Shark (picture book) 1967
Phoebe's Revolt (picture book) 1968
The Search for Delicious (juvenile novel) 1969
Knee-Knock Rise (juvenile novel) 1970
The Something (juvenile novel) 1970
Goody Hall (juvenile novel) 1971
The Devil's Storybook (juvenile novel) 1974
Tuck Everlasting (juvenile novel) 1975
The Eyes of the Amaryllis (juvenile novel) 1977
Herbert Rowbarge (juvenile novel) 1982
The Devil's Other Storybook (juvenile novel) 1987
Nellie: A Cat on Her Own (juvenile novel) 1989
Bub; or, The Very Best Thing (juvenile novel) 1994
Ouch!: A Tale from Grimm [illustrated by Fred Marcellino] (picture book) 1998
Elsie Times Eight (juvenile novel) 2001
Jack Plank Tells Tales (juvenile novel) 2007
Selected Works as Illustrator
The Forty-Ninth Magician [by Samuel Fisher Babbitt] (picture book) 1966
Small Poems [by Valerie Worth] (poetry) 1972
More Small Poems [by Valerie Worth] (poetry) 1976
Still More Small Poems [by Valerie Worth] (poetry) 1978
Curlicues: The Fortunes of Two Pug Dogs [by Valerie Worth] (juvenile fiction) 1980; published in England as Imp and Biscuit: The Fortunes of Two Pugs, (poetry) 1981
Small Poems Again [by Valerie Worth] (poetry) 1985
Other Small Poems Again [by Valerie Worth] (poetry) 1986
All the Small Poems [by Valerie Worth] (poetry) 1987
All the Small Poems and Fourteen More [by Valerie Worth] (poetry) 1994
Peacock and Other Poems [by Valerie Worth] (poetry) 2002
Natalie Babbitt and Betsy Hearne (interview date March-April 2000)
SOURCE: Babbitt, Natalie, and Betsy Hearne. "Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt." Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 2 (March-April 2000): 153-61.
[In the following interview, Babbitt discusses how she created Tuck Everlasting as well as the story's intentional and unintentional symbolism.]
Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting was first published in 1975; it has since become a modern classic. Farrar, Straus and Giroux's 25th anniversary edition of the novel, to be published this spring, features a wide-ranging, deep-digging conversation between Ms. Babbitt and critic Betsy Hearne. The following selection is excerpted from that interview.***
[Hearne]: The style and plot ofTuck Everlasting fit together like flesh and bones. Was this book an easy birth, or a hard labor? How long did it take, how many drafts, and how much editing?
[Babbitt]: It was hard to find the right way to begin it. There were a couple of other beginnings that aren't around anymore, because there were so many piles of paper that I finally gave everything to the University of Connecticut. But once I got started it was easy—partly because of the setting, which is a real place. It's always fun to write about a real place. In upstate New York we had a cabin on a pond, exactly like the Tucks'. We lived in a little college town south of Utica and went up to the cabin, in the foothills of the Adirondacks, for vacations and weekends when the children were little. Everything about that place in the book is true, including the mouse living in a drawer. (It was there when we first moved in, but we didn't keep it the way the Tucks kept theirs.) Everything about the pond, about toads—there were a lot of toads there—and frogs, everything is exactly the way it was in real life. All I had to do was fit my characters into the setting. That part was easy. And I knew what I wanted to say, which is always helpful.
As far as drafts are concerned, the way I've always worked is different from some of my colleagues who go from A all the way to Z and then start all over again to do their rewriting. That's a perfectly good way, but I rewrite each sentence when I come to it until it's just the way I want it. So in that sense Tuck didn't take any longer to write than any of my other books, about a year—nine months to a year, something like that. My editor, Michael di Capua, did some editing on it, but he did more boosting than anything else. He's very good at that.
The images inTuck Everlasting circle back over and over, especially the image of the circle itself. We find wheels circling, the sun circling, weather cycling, a ring of trees around the pond and rings in the water, and even the music box circles back over the same song with the key that winds in circles. And the plot circles, from the toad at the beginning, to the toad at the end. Were you aware of developing this theme as you wrote, or did the circle motifs just bubble up from underground, like the magic spring?
Some of the circles you mention I wasn't really conscious of, but certainly the whole idea of life and the seasons as a circle is a notion I've had for a long, long time, since I was very young. I think most of us have some sort of a visual image of what time would look like if you could draw a picture of it. I talk about that with kids when I visit them in school. My idea always was a fixed circle. I have a friend who said that couldn't be right; it would be more like a coil because it would come around but it wouldn't come to the same place, which is actually more accurate than the way I've always looked at it. But certainly the circle was and is very much a part of my philosophy, if you can call it that.
So you started out with that idea, but the bits and pieces of the image took you by surprise as you wrote?
I don't think I was even conscious of them. This is one of the weird things about writing. You don't know what you're doing, really, until years afterwards, and sometimes it comes as a great surprise. Writing is a kind of therapy, it really is.
Fairy tales are also therapeutic, andTuck Everlasting has a lot of fairy tale elements, including the water of everlasting life, a young heroine who journeys through the woods on an adventure that bestows new knowledge, and a "monster" whom she and her wise helpers overcome. You've talked about how the hero's mythic journey, as identified by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, repeats itself in fantasies for children. Did you carry a folkloric pattern in the back of your mind as you wrote? Or do you think such patterns—usually diagrammed as a circle, by the way—are unavoidable in reflecting the human experience that has generated them over the centuries?
I think they are unavoidable and I don't think you have to know anything about them to discover afterwards that you've been using them. Joseph Campbell says we're born with an understanding of this. I don't know what I think about pre-birth wisdom, but maybe it's true and certainly in the writing of fantasy, the pattern is almost unavoidable. Tuck doesn't necessarily end the way readers would expect a fantasy to end. In that regard, it is less of a fantasy than some of my other stories. It represents more of what I feel about fantasy and reality being a part of everybody's life in that two people can look at the same thing and see very different things. My sister and I, for instance, remember a very different person as a mother. So who can say where the reality actually is?
There's a sense that death, as far asTuck Everlasting goes, is a happily ever after. You see Tuck yearning for death when he looks at the man in the yellow suit dying. So the fact that the man dies is not a tragedy.
It isn't to me, but to some people it is, and maybe that's why it makes good talk material in school. People get to debate that point. I think there are a lot of us at any age who are very unsatisfied with The Plan that has been thrust on us. But of course we have to accept it, because there's no way to change it—not so far anyway!
You may have to write anotherTuck if there's a big change.
Right, a revised edition.
How about the man in the yellow suit? Did you intend him to be a death figure, with the descriptions of his bony white fingers, or maybe a devil figure with whom Winnie's family must bargain their woods in exchange for finding out where she is? And why does he wear yellow, which often represents brightness or sunlight, though sometimes cowardice? And why does he have no name, which is so mysterious?
Well, he's a very interesting character. I have known a couple of people who are like him, one of whom he is modeled after—a man now dead who was a completely amoral person, neither good nor bad. To be bad you have to have some understanding of good and then choose to go against it. That's the way the Christian or Judaic devil is; he has been in heaven and he goes to hell. The man in the yellow suit isn't like that. He doesn't see good or evil. He sees what he wants. He's totally selfish, totally self-absorbed, and that to me is much scarier than somebody who is simply bad and going against the law, because there's no way to reach him.
So he doesn't intend evil, in a sense.
No, he doesn't even think of it that way. He thinks about what he wants and that's the only thing that matters to him. He will use any method he can think of to get what he wants. There are people who are like that. The man in the yellow suit did have a name in the beginning, though I can't now remember what it was. I tried to find a very neutral name, but as long as he had a name, he was not as threatening. I think that is a very common thing with us humans. Somehow or other when something has a name, whether it's a person or a disease or whatever it is, we can cope with it. But with no identity, it slips through your fingers when you're trying to describe it. Then it becomes seriously threatening. So I took his name out. The yellow suit, however, is not like that at all. He wears a yellow suit because I needed a two-syllable color and nobody wears purple. And the reason why he needs a two-syllable color is because I use that phrase over and over again—"the man in the yellow suit"—and it has to have a certain kind of music to it. If it were "the man in the black suit," the sound would kind of clump. That's the only reason for the yellow and it is unfortunate, because a lot of people have thought that it meant he was a coward, which he's not. He doesn't even understand cowardice.
Yes, I proposed cowardice to my class but they didn't buy it. They said it should have been red for the devil or black for death.
I don't think of him as a death figure, although that's interesting; he does seem to have some of those qualities, doesn't he? But physically he is rather like the person on whom he's based. He was very scary, very powerful.
The man in the yellow suit looms as a threat, and Tuck speaks wisely—but it is the women in the book who act, both Mae Tuck and Winnie. Were you aware of challenging the common stereotype of passive heroines, especially those in some of our more popular European fairy tales?
I don't know whether I did that consciously or not, but I really wanted Winnie to be strong. She is a lot like me on many levels and I recognized that, but I wanted her to have qualities that I don't have and that I envy in other women whom I know. Winnie was worried about going into the woods. She got homesick and she went through all those difficult things, but she overcame them and was able to act. I am kind of a nervous person who needs a lot of familiar things around me, and I didn't want her to be like that. When I talk to children about her, I only say, "Well, she wasn't afraid to pick up the toad." I've never picked up a toad. I wouldn't even consider picking up a toad! Winnie is strong—and Mae is a kind of woman whom I also very much admire. But Mae represents all of us females, and I have fun talking about this to girls in school, too. She represents all female animals. She strikes without stopping to think, in order to protect her young. So it's interesting that the complaints I have gotten about her killing the man in the yellow suit have—I think I'm right in saying this—come only from males. Women seem instinctively to understand why she did what she did.
And as you talk, I realize that she's not only protecting Winnie, her young, but she's also protecting the young of the world.
Oh, yes. She is an Earth Mother figure if there ever was one.
And there's not going to be any place for the young if the man in the yellow suit succeeds in getting hold of the water of everlasting life.
Right. She understands all that and she's very accepting of the lot that she's been given. She doesn't try to judge it, she just moves forward. I have known women who have some of those qualities and I envy them enormously.
So Winnie is a new kind of heroine, in the way she acts, and Mae is an ancient kind of heroine.
Although she's a pre-adolescent, Winnie feels attracted to Jesse, and at first there's the possibility of a future romance with him. I made a leap from her awakening awareness to the fact that frogs and toads are common symbols of sexuality in fairy tales.
I didn't know that! Are they?
"The Frog Prince" comes to mind.Tuck Everlasting is full of frogs and toads …
It is, that's very funny!
… and Winnie moves from feeling repelled by a toad to holding it "for a long time, without the least disgust, in the palm of her hand." Do you think Winnie's toad is another folkloric symbol of her crossing a threshold to maturity?
Not really. There were toads at the pond, the real pond, and I'm just trying to think about the timing. Valerie Worth, a wonderful poet who's now dead, wrote a superb poem about a toad. I'm just wondering whether I read that poem before I wrote this or not. I can't remember, but maybe I simply recognized Winnie's feeling of revulsion because that's the way I feel about toads. Frogs are much more glamorous figures, but toads are earth creatures like Mae. They're not beautiful and they tend to accept an environment where the colors can serve as a kind of camouflage.
And you've called her a "great potato of a woman."
Yes. But as far as toads being a sexual symbol, that is not something I was aware of, which doesn't mean that I didn't do it subconsciously.
It is remarkable that Winnie gets over the disgust and feels a kind of respect and affection for this creature.
But don't you think that is something that we all go through, perhaps on a less dramatic level? You're afraid of something until you try it and then you think, "Oh, gee, this is not so bad after all!"
That's exactly what the Princess thought, too, after she hurled the frog that was on her pillow against the wall and he turned into a prince. After all, sexuality and procreation are a part of the circle, and Winnie's gravestone reads "Dear Wife/Dear Mother." In fact, let's talk about the epilogue. Some of the best children's fiction I've read features a kind of "second ending," after the action is over, that sheds new light on the whole book. The confrontation scene between the two main characters of Brock Cole's novel The Goats is one, or the party scene at the end of Louis Sachar's Holes. Your epilogue where Tuck finds Winnie's grave still makes me cry, after all these years of rereading. It delivers death offstage, which is a subtle way of telling us about Winnie's fate; and at the same time the epilogue verifies that the water is magic, because the toad still lives, and that means that Winnie really had to make a choice. Was this epilogue integral to your original idea of the story line, or did you surprise yourself by discovering and adding it?
I really didn't surprise myself, and that goes back to the way I tend to write stories, which is never even to begin until I know exactly how they're going to end. I have a lot of colleagues/friends now and we all have different systems. My system of having to know how the thing is going to end before I start is only one of many different ways. There aren't any rules, but it's the only way I can do it. I don't know how you can begin if you don't know how the ending is going to be. Since the ending carries the weight of my whole feelings about a question, I have to know exactly how I am going to end it.
When you started thinking about the book, did you think through it until you knew how the ending was going to be, or did the whole thing come upon you like a hatched egg?
I did some thinking through. I knew that Winnie—well, I didn't even know she was Winnie in the beginning, she had some other name—but I knew that my girl character would choose to die, and the question was how to lead up to that, how to have the characters discover it.
It's fascinating to contrast your process with those formula series books in which the plot is all outlined. There are no surprises in them because it's all basically done according to a tip sheet; that's the reason many series seem so contrived. Yet there's nothing inTuck Everlasting that seems contrived even though you had already planned the whole thing out. But you started with the ending and the surprise was how you were going to get there?
Yes. One of the reasons why it takes so long to get into the story is that Tuck has three first chapters. I would start and I would be going along and then I would think, "Well no, you have to say something before you come to this," so I'd put another chapter at the beginning of that one. Kids are troubled by this; they think it starts very slowly, and for them I think it does. In my generation we are quite used to books that take you gradually into themselves.
It occurs to me that you have to circle around in order to get into the book because you've got different characters who are starting from different points. Why Winnie's name, by the way?
Well, it doesn't have a meaning, and usually names that I use do have a separate meaning. But I wanted a name that was common to the period, and that's true for all of the other names too. Winifred was a very popular name at the turn of the century.
And she wins.
That's true. At least, you and I think she does.
And the Tucks are tucked out of time and tuckered out.
I spent a lot of time choosing that name. Tuck is a real name. Do you remember Dick Tuck, in the Nixon administration, who played dirty tricks on people? It's a real name but it is also a word, and one of its oldest meanings, which you don't even find in recent dictionaries, is "life." I expect that somehow the phrase nip and tuck must come from that old meaning. I have a wonderful 1947 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary that belonged to my family, and in there the word tuck means "life" among other things. So that's why I chose it.
And Mae is an interesting word; M-A-E is associated with may, can, will. There's something very positive about it. Did you consider that?
No, it was just a name that seemed to me on some level to be very suitable to the character that I wanted. I wanted the Tuck family to represent different ways of looking at the idea of living forever. After all, since we can't do it, there's no right or wrong way to feel about it. People think it would be good, or they think it would be bad, or they think parts of it might be fun. I wanted those different notions to be represented by the members of the Tuck family. That's just a craftsmanlike way to go at it; there's no art in that. Nor is there any art in the fact that the boys are boys. The Tuck boys are boys because they have a lot of conversations alone with Winnie, and it's very hard to have two females or two males, because it's always "he said" and then "he said" and then "he said," and the reader doesn't know which "he" is which. But if you can say "he" and "she," you don't have to keep using the names. That is pretty mechanical, and it worked out well.
There would have been a whole different dynamic had one of the Tucks' sons been a girl.
Absolutely. In fact the whole family's setup, with everyone going off for ten years, wouldn't have worked very well if they had been girls. Not for the times it's set in. A lot of those things are just the sheerest kind of luck, but they worked.
Carolyn Johnson (review date December 1975)
SOURCE: Johnson, Carolyn. Review of Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. School Library Journal 22, no. 4 (December 1975): 50.
Gr. 5-8—Doomed to—or blessed with—eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can [in Tuck Everlasting ]. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing than it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune. Moving at full speed, with fewer thematic digressions than the author's Goody Hall (Farrar, 1971), this compelling story derives strength and focus from the contrast between Winnie's neat and orderly but sterile life and the Tucks' cluttered, un- stable but thoughtful existence. Babbitt creates thoroughly knowable characters through vividly descriptive prose, e.g., Mae Tuck is "a great potato of a woman," and leads readers gently into a fantasy world where anything can happen.
Betsy Hearne (review date 1 December 1975)
SOURCE: Hearne, Betsy. Review of Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. Booklist 72, no. 7 (1 December 1975): 509.
With great care, Babbitt crafts words into places, people, and events that seem to have emerged from an untrampled imagination [in Tuck Everlasting ]. She catches the whole nature of a thing with one deft twist—"a herd of cows who were, to say the least, relaxed." The Tuck family have unwittingly drunk from a spring of life and suffer a sort of eternal youth that keeps them apart from the changes that occur naturally in time. Eleven-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret just about the same time as does a stranger with devilish intentions, and she must assume some burdensome decisions about life and death, which she does with grace. Winnie intuits the Tucks' basic goodness, rescues them when they are charged with kidnapping and murder, and neither divulges their secret nor shares the water. With its serious intentions and light touch the story is, like the Tucks, timeless.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (review date February 1976)
SOURCE: Review of Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 29, no. 6 (February 1976): 90-1.
[Tuck Everlasting is a] fantasy written in flowing, natural style is deftly constructed, firmly based on a realistic foundation, and strong in dialogue and character establishment, save for one malevolent character. However, if the villain is a bit too villainous, he is the one exaggeration that sets off the other, wholly believable characters. And the Tuck family, who have drunk the waters of immortality, are wholly believable. The parents and two sons who, by accident, had found a hidden spring, have hidden their longevity by separation and isolation from others; they have a secret reunion every ten years. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles across them, the Tucks take her home for a night so that they can explain their predicament, and they all become fast friends. When a slick evil man who has been tracking down the Tucks takes advantage of the situation and endangers the family, Mrs. Tuck shoots him and is jailed. Then Winnie helps plan the rescue and escape that will take her friends away forever—unless she decides to drink the water herself. A very good read, indeed, with an unexpectedly poignant ending.
Michael O. Tunnell (essay date July-August 1987)
SOURCE: Tunnell, Michael O. "Books in the Classroom." Horn Book Magazine 63, no. 4 (July-August 1987): 509-11.
[In the following essay, Tunnell explains the particular appeal that Tuck Everlasting holds for various age groups.]
Classroom teachers are always looking for books that will read well aloud. Because humorous stories are more easily accepted by a heterogeneous class, teachers often choose them. However, teachers who promote literacy and love children's literature can have an enormous impact on their students by sharing important books that deal with serious topics. Many children might not pick up a novel like The Slave Dancer (Bradbury) by Paula Fox unless guided by a teacher or librarian. But a teacher who reads The Slave Dancer aloud to his or her class, offering insight to the historical times, will deeply affect the majority of the students, winning them over to books of depth.
Now and again there surfaces a special book of serious nature that will be readily accepted by almost everyone. My experiences introducing books to children and adults in elementary, secondary, and university classes have allowed me to pinpoint a few books with this quality. One of the most outstanding is Tuck Everlasting (Farrar) by Natalie Babbitt, which addresses the rather weighty themes of life and death and examines the purpose of human existence. Ten-year-old Winnie Foster happens upon a marvelous but dangerous secret—a spring that offers immortality. The hidden spring is carefully guarded by the gentle family of Angus Tuck, who unknowingly drank from it eighty-seven years earlier and have remained unchanged since that time. But never aging or ailing proves to be a curse rather than a blessing, and the Tucks realize the spring must remain a secret. The chain of events set into action by Winnie's discovery is dramatic; the consequences are both tragic and triumphant.
Over the last ten years I have watched the effect of Tuck Everlasting on people of greatly varying ages and interests. It seems to contain something special for everyone. Eight-year-olds are deeply intrigued by the carefully foreshadowed plot, especially when the book is read aloud to them. They experience sheer wonderment at the scenario Babbitt creates when Mae Tuck faces death by hanging for inadvertently killing the villainous "man in the yellow suit." A Tuck cannot die. Listeners experience a delicious chill: even the heaviest sandbags tied to her ankles will never snap Mae's neck, and the spectacle of her hanging will certainly expose the spring's power.
Twelve-year-olds identify with Winnie's rites of passage, reveling in the independent and resourceful Winnie who emerges from her trials. In marvelous fashion Winnie takes charge of the story's events. Her new sense of courage and responsibility gives her the determination to follow through with a plan that will assure the Tucks their freedom, thus preserving the terrible secret of the spring. Even Winnie's domineering and overprotective parents are awed by the change in their child. Babbitt recognizes the universal subconscious fear adolescents harbor concerning parental domination and their inability to achieve independence. Like a fairy tale, Winnie's story strengthens what Bruno Bettelheim calls the unconscious conviction that despite all the developmental difficulties youngsters suffer, they have cause to be confident about their futures.
Fifteen-year-olds experience strange inner stirrings that are evoked by Winnie's final and, perhaps, most difficult decision. Though Winnie and Jesse, the youngest of the Tucks, are by no means star-crossed lovers, they still play out a semitragic relationship. Before the Tucks disappear to wander the earth eternally, Jesse presses a bottle of the spring water into Winnie's hand. "‘When you're seventeen, Winnie, you can drink it, and then come find us…. Winnie, please say you will!’" Few of the more mature readers that I've polled have failed to experience genuine inner conflict—to drink or not to drink. In spite of all that common sense dictates, many give in temporarily to the whisperings of a romantic heart. But Babbitt has her feet firmly in the world of realities. Winnie has learned well from Angus: "‘You can't call it living, what we got.’" Young readers wistfully agree that Winnie makes the proper choice. Indeed, it is one of the special moments in all of children's literature when Angus visits the Treegap cemetery nearly eighty years later and finds Winnie's headstone.
"So," said Tuck to himself. "Two years. She's been gone two years." He stood up and looked around, embarrassed, trying to clear the lump from his throat. But there was no one to see him…. Tuck wiped his eyes hastily. Then he straightened his jacket again and drew up his hand in a brief salute. "Good girl," he said aloud.
Adults are also deeply affected by the book. I generally require the reading of Tuck Everlasting in my university children's literature courses, and the book has never failed to leave its mark. Adult readers tend to be more cognizant of Babbitt's craft, the strength and beauty of her writing style. It is difficult to ignore writing that dances to its own wonderful music yet is clear and direct. So impressed was a graduate student that she seriously insists that Angus's impassioned explanation of life's purpose in Chapter 12 will be read at her funeral.
Natalie Babbitt's artistry is often as subtle as it is striking, and its effects may go unnoticed on a conscious level. For example, Babbitt carefully creates an atmosphere of tension as the novel begins—the dog days of summer, those "strange, breathless days … when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after." The motionless heat continues to accentuate the growing tension, producing increased yet subconscious reader anxiety. But as the story draws to an end, the author brews a grand storm. The Tucks disappear into a wind-tossed night, and the long awaited rain begins to fall. The dog days are over, and Babbitt uses this literal cleansing of a parched world as a deeply symbolic cleansing that expurgates the tension and signifies the successful completion of Winnie Foster's quest. The sense of relief is as refreshing as the cool wetness of the rain.
I have read and shared Tuck Everlasting many times. With each reading I am supremely satisfied, yet a bit melancholy, as the story ends. This strange mixture of feelings may be caused by Babbitt's choice to employ the classical hero motif, thus lending a timeless quality to her story and strengthening its considerable impact. Stories of quests like Winnie's have tended to leave my students and me with an odd sense of yearning to explore new worlds, to stand strong in the face of adversity, to make a difference—to be a hero.
Natalie Babbitt understands well the power of the hero tale. "To carry on in that tradition," she explains, "to take the hero through his round and bring him home again, over and over, is an ancient and honorable exercise that will never lose its vitality or its value." Indeed, Babbitt launches Winnie Foster on the hero's path, taking her full circle. I'm grateful that my students and I are allowed to travel with her.
Michael M. Levy (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: Levy, Michael M. "Tuck Everlasting." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 5, edited by Kirk H. Beetz, pp. 2626-32. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, Inc., 1991.
[In the following essay, Levy equates Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting to an old-fashioned work of literary fantasy that nonetheless deals with complex issues of morality.]
About the Author
Natalie Zane Moore was born on July 28, 1932, in Dayton, Ohio. Her ancestors on both sides came to North America in the 1600s and two of them, Isaac Zane, the White Eagle of the Wyandottes, and Zebulon Pike, the discoverer of Pike's Peak, were renowned adventurers and explorers. Others among her ancestors founded towns throughout West Virginia and Ohio.
Babbitt's father, Ralph Moore, worked in the field of labor relations, but, due in part to the Great Depression and in part, perhaps, to his wife Genevieve's desire that the family better themselves, he switched jobs frequently throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Babbitt has often emphasized the enormous effect that these moves from city to city had on the formation of her personality and on her later writing. Her stories tend to be about young people who, for one reason or another, are lost or separated from home.
In 1954, soon after graduating from Smith College with a degree in art, Natalie Moore married Samuel Babbitt, who became a successful university administrator, holding positions at Yale, Vanderbilt, Kirkland College (where he was president), and Brown. She settled down to the life of a university administrator's wife, hostessing parties and raising three children. In 1964 Babbitt, frustrated and bored, read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, a book that reawakened her long dormant desire to be an artist.
Her first professional publication, The Forty-Ninth Magician, a picture book of her illustrations with text by her husband, appeared in 1966 and was well received. Babbitt wrote and illustrated two more picture books, Dick Foote and the Shark (1967) and Phoebe's Revolt (1968), before beginning work on her first children's novel, The Search for Delicious (1969), which was chosen by the New York Times as the best novel of the year for nine- to twelve-year-olds.
Natalie Babbitt has said that she doesn't consider herself a professional writer, by which she means that she doesn't write primarily for the money. This independence from the financial side of the publishing business has allowed her to craft, slowly and carefully, a series of fine works for older children and young adults. Knee-Knock Rise (1970) was a Newbery Honor Book. The Devil's Storybook (1974) was nominated for the National Book Award. In 1976 Tuck Everlasting won the Christopher Award; and her life's work in children's literature earned her the important George G. Stone Award in 1978. In 1982 Herbert Rowbarge appeared, Babbitt's personal favorite among all her works, and in 1987 The Devil's Other Storybook, a sequel to her earlier, award-nominated collection, was published. Babbitt and her husband currently divide their time between homes in Providence, Rhode Island, and Cape Cod. Virtually all of her books remain in print.
While avoiding the hyper-realism of so many recent novels for children and young adults, Tuck Everlasting nonetheless gives a believable and loving portrait of real people in a very difficult, if somewhat fantastic, situation. Winnie Foster is neither an angel nor an anti-hero. She's simply a young girl with strengths and weaknesses; she is basically good, but far from perfect. The Tucks, at first glance, come across as little more than endearing, slightly mysterious country bumpkins, but we quickly realize, as Winnie does, that there is much more to them than is immediately apparent. Angus and Mae Tuck are unlettered, but wise in their own way, and they have much to teach Winnie about life.
The central event of the novel—the Tucks offering Winnie immortality—is both intriguing and problematic. Should she accept the offer? Should she consider marrying Jesse Tuck and coming to live with them? Whether she herself chooses to live forever or not, should she keep their secret? The Tucks' slovenly but free lifestyle stands in obvious contrast with everything Winnie hates about her parents' and grandmother's prim, fenced-in, middle-class existence. Winnie, however, must decide whether the freedom the Tucks represent is right for her. This decision is made even more complex when the unnamed stranger in the yellow suit makes an appearance and, in his overwhelming desire to gain control of the fountain of immortality, threatens both the Tucks and Winnie. His death at Mae Tuck's hands and her impending execution on a charge of murder add the final components to what is already a difficult and compelling moral problem.
Tuck Everlasting is set in the year 1881. Babbitt never specifies a location but has stated elsewhere that what she had in mind was a cross between the heavily-wooded Ohio frontier which her ancestors had helped to tame in an earlier century and the Adirondack foothills of New York where she was living at the time she wrote the book. Winnie Foster lives in a proper, middle-class house with a fenced-in yard on the edge of the town of Treegap. Her family supposedly owns the nearby Treegap wood, but nobody really owns the wood. It is an ancient, mysterious place, something, Babbitt hints, which has been left over from a previous creation. At its center, protected by magic, lies the fountain of eternal life, a tiny, nondescript spout of water at the base of an ancient ash tree.
Babbitt places the fussy propriety of Winnie's home and yard in contrast with the untamed luxuriousness of nature, and, ironically, with the moldering and messy chaos of the Tuck's shack. When Winnie must choose between a return to her family and staying with the Tucks, the setting provides a visual symbol for her choice. Her old life was as limiting as the fence which kept her at home. Life with the Tucks, although seemingly offering an infinity of new choices, might in the end be just as limiting and considerably more chaotic.
Theme and Characters
What would it be like to live forever? Most of us, if we think of eternal life, see it either in generally vague religious terms or as a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy. Our vision of such a life includes the assumption of either a transcendent wisdom which will eliminate all the problems of our current lives or eternal youth, a sort of never-ending summer vacation. But what if, as Babbitt suggests, immortality simply froze people at the age they were when they drank from the fountain? What would it be like going on forever as a tired, late-middle aged man or woman? As a frustrated husband, still in his prime, but forever separated from his family? As a naive and energetic adolescent, never quite coming of age?
Winnie Foster, a young girl just on the edge of adolescence, is intensely frustrated by the boundaries which her parents have placed on her life. She yearns to see the world and to have adventures. At first, she is attracted to the Tucks' freedom, both from the restraints of a middle-class life style and from the tyranny of aging. Gradually, however, she comes to realize that real joy is only possible in the presence of the change which goes hand-in-hand with the aging process. The Tucks do not change. To use Angus Tuck's own image, they've fallen off the wheel of life. Angus and Mae Tuck, although uneducated, are endearing and wise in their limited way. Their sons, Miles and Jesse, are, or appear to be, fine young men. Jesse, in particular, is spirited and attractive.
But ultimately the Tucks are terminally bored and perhaps a bit boring. They have forever, but because each of their days is essentially identical to the last, they, in effect, have nothing. Although Jesse does attempt to convince Winnie to join him in eternal life, his parents make it clear that their situation is far more of a burden than a blessing.
The first thing that strikes most critics about Babbitt's work is its difference from other modern children's fiction. In the 1960s and 1970s, while an increasing number of writers for children and adolescents were producing work aligned with the new realism, dealing more or less explicitly with the social and political issues of the day, Babbitt was writing a series of books like Tuck Everlasting. These gentle, oddly philosophical novels, written in an understated and slightly old-fashioned prose style, are, for the most part, set in a somewhat fantastic, almost invariably pastoral pre-twentieth century world. Babbitt's fiction, however, also fails to fit comfortably into that other popular genre for young people: high fantasy. Although connections can be made between Tuck Everlasting and, for example, the work of Lloyd Alexander, Alan Garner, or Ursula K. Le Guin, Tuck lacks the actively heroic note, the call to arms, the violent action, and the larger than life accomplishments, that are prerequisites to the descendants of Tolkien.
To say that Babbitt's fiction lacks the somewhat exaggerated violence often associated both with new realism and high fantasy, however, is not to say that it is toothless. Babbitt's novels often center around one violent act, the death of a loved one in a carriage accident or shipwreck, or, in the case of Tuck Everlasting, the killing of an evil man. Babbitt then proceeds to examine the effect of that violence on the other characters. Mae Tuck's killing of the stranger, for example, emphasizes to Winnie Foster her own mortality and the potential for immortality which the Tuck's offer her.
Babbitt's work is also somewhat old fashioned in its use of allusions to folklore, mythology, and classic literature. In Tuck Everlasting, for example, there are a series of references to the wheel of life and the cycle of the seasons. Even the supposedly illiterate old Angus Tuck knows that "dying's part of the wheel" and that he and his family have somehow fallen off. The fountain of eternal life, lying at the foot of an ash tree, is clearly a reference to Yggdrasil, the Norse symbol of the universe, an ash tree at whose foot was the fount of immortality. There is also a reference to Richard Lovelace's classic "To Althea, from Prison": "Stone walls do not a prison make / Nor iron bars a cage."
Tuck Everlasting is a popular book with librarians and junior high school teachers, in part because Babbitt has set up for Winnie a series of important, clearly depicted moral dilemmas which younger adolescents are likely to find of great interest. The book has, however, occasionally been criticized by adult readers who disapprove of Winnie's choices. First there is her decision to lie and deny that she was kidnapped by the Tucks. Then there is her need to come to terms with Mae Tuck's killing of the stranger. The crime was in some sense necessary. The stranger, after all, wanted to bottle and sell the water from the fountain at a very high price and tried to force Winnie to drink from it against her will. The implication is that he would then set her up in a sort of freak show. He also threatened to expose the Tucks. After Mae is arrested for murder, Winnie must decide to disobey her parents and help free her from prison. Finally, and most importantly, she must decide whether or not to take the Tucks up on their offer of eternal life.
Joseph O. Milner (essay date winter 1995)
SOURCE: Milner, Joseph O. "Hard Religious Questions in Knee-Knock Rise and Tuck Everlasting." ALAN Review 22, no. 2 (winter 1995): 18-19.
Natalie Babbitt's books are charming. They are fresh and gnome-like. But though she is seen as a teller of spritely, whimsical tales that are especially loved by young students, her books reflect a philosophical brooding over some deep religious questions that are particularly important to adolescents. Two of her books, Knee-Knock Rise and Tuck Everlasting, seem to be probing difficult questions with a skeptical attitude not unlike that found in the works of two literary scourges of religion, Kurt Vonnegut and Wallace Stevens.
Knee-Knock Rise explores the question of fabricated religion much as does Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. In his terse, funny novel of holocaust-producing science and South-Sea-Island religion, Vonnegut scrutinizes these two contending "saviors of mankind." He shows how the Bokononist religion, which McCabe and Johnson have concocted, is richly enough embroidered with rite and dogma to offer the impoverished natives a measure of happiness. The men make this faith all the more alluring and meaningful by establishing a wholly evil, secular government that persecutes those who adhere to the Bokononist faith. Thus, with a vital ritual and a strong web of belief, even a meager existence seems acceptable to the islanders. Vonnegut adds a further dimension to his religious questions when, having experienced the frozen hell that science has created, Johnson/Bokonon admits that he wishes to end his earthly days by resting on the peak of Mount McCage, thumbing his nose at "you-know-who." A certain streak of affirmation seems to lie hidden in the traumatic refutation, but Vonnegut's questions about religion are more undermining than affirming. He basically views Religion as a ghost created by humans to soothe their fear of facing the void without a belief system.
Natalie Babbitt approaches the question of fabrication much more indirectly in Knee-Knock Rise, but her tale offers a similar note of skepticism about such belief systems while at the same time it acknowledges most humans' deep need for such supra-rational modes. Like the poverty of Vonnegut's island, the life around the rise is flat and without vitality. So, the mountain, though not large, takes on size in this lackluster environment: it arouses interest; it spawns festivals; it instills fears; it engenders superstitions. This mountain, which Egan early on suggests is not so remarkable, is, with its howling god, the only jolt to the sameness that could otherwise engulf the townsfolk. All believe in the beast's being, and they daily celebrate its power over them. They are abject before its power, yet use it to create a rich fabric of rite that knits their corporate lives together. Their faith and fealty also serve to bring the town great note and multitudes of tourists—psychic and material reinforcers for all of their activity. Nor is the belief system spun out of nothingness. The rise has a very special shape. The ominous mist appears irregularly. The accompanying howl has a chilling note of doom attached to it. All are clear signs that a palpable something exists above the townsfolk. Babbitt's myth has as much reason for its existence as do most.
Babbitt's hero, however, is at the age of quest and question, and through foolish pride he eventually stumbles upon that sanctuary, and, with the aid of his asocial, philosophical uncle, finds the rational, natural explanation of what had seemed irrational and supernatural. He (and Babbitt as well) is thus stuck with the dilemma of what to do with this new-found knowledge. With Uncle Ott as his mentor, he grows to new heights; he realizes that, for most people, factual truth and knowledge are less necessary than belief. So, he leaves Instep with its Megrimum intact.
Thus Babbitt and Vonnegut tentatively reinstate myth and fancy for all but the most skeptical. But they are nevertheless clear that no matter how productive the religious practice, the fabric of faith is spun out of man-made yarns: the Bokononist's faith is the sheer creation of McCabe and Johnson and the Megrimum Myth, of the Instep townsfolk. So though most folk need a religion that works, Babbitt allows her stronger characters (Ott and Egan) to dwell at this higher level of myth consciousness, just as Vonnegut allows Johnson and McCabe to benignly fashion a religion for the natives. She projects, then, a kind of post-modernist view of reality that suggests that one myth is as good as the rest, that all realities are myth, that the "order of things" is one imposed by the mind. So though fabrication is celebrated, it remains fabrication for deliverance's sake, and such self-consciousness eats away the foundations of belief. Thus, though the book's epilogue, "facts are the barren branches on which we hang the dear, obscuring foliage of our dreams," suggests the bleak quality of mere facts, the preciousness of dreams is sadly undercut by the certainty that their obscuring nature is a necessary feature of the process. Tuck Everlasting takes a rather different tact on religion. In this amazingly economical tale, Babbitt deals with religion's basic promise of eternal life by standing the idea on its head very much in the manner of Wallace Stevens' short and remarkable poem, "The Good Man Has No Shape." Stevens' poem on religion's contentious role in the rise of Man uses a counterlever, ironic structure wherein he cloaks the tale of the slowly unfolding role of Man as Savior in the garb of the Jesus story. He has his good Man betrayed, tried, crucified, mocked by the anti-humanist believers, and by inference resurrected through the power of his human imagination. He thus establishes poetry as the "Necessary Angel" and puts the enemy to rout by answering its "no eternal life" jibes with a humanist resurrection story of his own.
Natalie Babbitt is working in much the same territory in that she takes the basic, haunting question—if a man die, shall he live again?—and reverses it to ask, if a man were not to die, could he truly live. In dramatizing her unexpected response to this religious question, she uses the seemingly ordinary Tuck family and their "Savior" Winnie and plays them off against a loose version of the Biblical story. The book's dynamic is the Tucks' dual burden of not only enduring the pain of everlasting life but protecting all mankind from gaining the knowledge that such an existence is possible.
The beginnings of the ironic reversal lie in the Tucks' protectionist role that is contrary to that of Jesus and his followers who expended themselves trying to let all the world know of this eternal possibility. Moreover, as Winnie helps the Tucks, she serves as an ironic "savior," for she is only reluctantly released to distant yards, and life itself, by her timid, orderly family. Moreover, she only accidentally comes to see the truth of eternal life and must be mentored slowly into an understanding of her special role in guarding that precious secret.
The Yellow-Suited, Demonic presence, too, expresses the same ironic twist on the Christian story, for his evil purpose is to release (admittedly at high price) the secret of eternal life, rather than to war against that condition as does Satan. The irony is further advanced by Mae Tuck, who, in confronting his totally evil intentions, releases her life force against him in a death blow much like the evil Claggart received from speechless Billy Budd. She thus kills to protect man from the secret of eternal life, while Jesus had enlivened Lazarus to reveal His power over death. Perhaps the highest moment of irony begins to emerge when Mae Tuck lies in prison knowing that her failure to die when publicly executed (on an inverted L) will surely unveil the Tuck secret. This is a clear reversal of the fact that Jesus' death at the hands of the Romans allowed Him to demonstrate His everlasting nature. It is at this crisis moment that Winnie fully realizes her necessary role in the Tuck drama. She sees that she must take Mae's place in jail in order to protect the Tucks' rare knowledge. Thus she serves as an ironic substitute in that as a mortal she can perish (she will not, of course) whereas Mae cannot afford to fail at death before a crowd. The mortal subs for the immortal, while in the Bible the reverse is true. Winnie's not dying thus saves humanity by allowing us to die, whereas Jesus died that we should live eternally.
Natalie Babbitt has thus, through Tuck Everlasting, ironically banished the anxiety surrounding death and the concomitant hope for eternal life by making death life-giving. And in so doing she has made a sharp incursion into the heartland of religion by undercutting what Sigmund Freud, Norman O. Brown, and others see as its raison d'être. Babbitt is a teller of spritely, quick tales that are clearly to be enjoyed primarily as spritely, quick tales. Like Twain, she has declared that her books do not teach serious lessons. But, lurking in her words and under her dark rocks, are Vonnegut's and Stevens' treacherous questions that shadow religion: Is it real? Does it overcome death?
Tim Wynne-Jones (essay date November-December 2000)
SOURCE: Wynne-Jones, Tim. "Future Classics." Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 6 (November-December 2000): 720-21.
[In the following essay, Wynne-Jones suggests that Tuck Everlasting has an enduring quality born from its fairy tale roots.]
My guess is that in the next hundred years they aren't going to find a cure for death. Our children's children's children's children's children might live to be a hundred and forty—poor souls—but while they are still children, each of them will one day suddenly realize, as have we in our twentieth-century childhoods, that he or she will not live forever. And it would be nice, on that strange morning, if a kind bibliobot put Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting into the child's hand.
I think, a century from now, that Tuck will still have something essential to say about the human condition. And how well it does so, with flawless style, in words that are exact and simple and soothing and right.
A novel by its very name cannot help becoming unnovel, dated. Tuck is a folktale, built low to the ground. Unlike its thin-skinned younger cousin, Literature, the Folk Tale is a tough nut. Literature gets bruised and chaffed and changed with every passing generation. Tuck will not become road kill on the infobahn or whatever technologies replace this one. Like the best of Grimm and Perrault and Andersen, it will lie nutlike and waiting along the path leading through the enchanted woods in which folk tales always start.
Winnie Foster, ten but going on seventy-eight, does not believe in folk tales. She is scornful of her grandmother's elves. So the story related to her by the Tucks that they have drunk from a magic spring and will never die strikes Winnie as impossible.
Winnie is a wise child, but she is wrong to doubt the truth of folk tales, and Tuck is a folk tale, despite the fact that it does not start with "Once upon a time." Folk tales, as Kevin Crossley-Holland puts it, "move unselfconsciously between the actual and the fantastic, as does a child's mind; and they decode the mysterious, often threatening world the child is growing into."
What could be more mysterious and threatening than death? The answer: not-death. When we learn at the end of the book that Winnie died after a full long life, we are as relieved as Tuck is. How guilelessly and comfortingly and humorously Babbitt has led her reader to that startling realization. She has been preparing us all along, especially thirty pages earlier, when Winnie squeezes her adolescent frame into her baby rocking chair and considers what she has learnt from the Tucks. She has learned about the importance of dying, and the information is both "satisfying and lonely." And so she rocks, like an old person might do and to achieve the same comfort. "She rocked, gazing out at the twilight, and the soothing feeling came reliably into her bones."
Shall we still need soothing in 2101? I suspect so. It is human nature to wonder and worry from time to time. To update Descartes, I fret, therefore I am. But we are also, it seems, hardwired to heal ourselves of anxiety. For it is in our nature to tell stories: to amuse, inspire, beguile, and console. Tuck does all that.
Jon C. Stott (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Stott, Jon C. "Power, Freedom, and Imprisonment in Tuck Everlasting." In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1995-1999, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 37-42. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001.
[In the following essay, Stott studies the relative power of the adults in Winnie's life in Tuck Everlasting and how that their power contrasts with Winnie's later sense of personal empowerment and freedom.]
Like the haunting melody of Mae Tuck's music box, which touches people across the ages, the delicate yet powerful words of Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting continue to move readers two decades after the book's publication. Like an impressionist painting, its images, characters, and actions combine to create a picture that is both beautiful and profound in its vividness, vitality, and depth. Babbitt, however, is more than just a skilled artist of the beautiful. In a novel that is shorter than most written for children, she has presented a character engaged in the most fundamental quest of her life: the search to achieve the power to make the right choice about the nature and duration of the rest of her life. Indeed, it is the delicacy and strength with which Babbitt treats this truly awesome theme of power that may well keep this book the children's classic it has become.
In the concluding chapter of Tuck Everlasting, eleven-year-old Winnie Foster is given an opportunity no other human being in the novel (or by extension any other human being who has ever lived) has been given. She can choose to drink from a vial containing the waters of immortality, and she can do so whenever she wishes. She has the ability both to escape from the power of death and to stop her aging process at whatever stage she desires. She also has the power not to drink and thus submit herself to the universal dooms of aging and dying. When, seven decades later, the immortal Angus Tuck discovers her tombstone, he muses, "‘Good girl’" (138), understanding and approving the choice Winnie made. The power, strength, and wisdom she exhibited in choosing to submit to the power of mortality are subtly presented by Babbitt, who reveals the tremendous growth experienced by the girl during four hot August nights and days and contrasts the power she achieves to the power and powerlessness of the adults around her.
The constable who arrests Mae and brings her back to his new jail to await trial and, he thinks, inevitable death by hanging, lives entirely within the idea of the law, which gives him the only power he appears to possess and which provides him with security against unpredictable aspects of life. Like his horse, he plods along at one gait and is unaware of the mighty conflict between immortality and mortality embodied in the encounter between Mae and the stranger. He makes no decisions on his own, telling Mae that he will arrest her because "‘That's the law’" (104) and explaining that he cannot arrest Winnie because she is "‘too young to be punished by the law’" (129).
Winnie Foster's mother and maternal grandmother exercise greater power over the girl than does the constable, but they are themselves controlled by the pride of their imagined superiority in the little village. They are the owners of the neighboring wood into which even cows dare not wander, and their house has a "touch-me-not appearance" (6) and seems to share their pride. It is surrounded by a four-foot-high iron-bar fence, which "keeps the rest of the world at bay" (6). The dwelling has become "a fortress of … duty" (50), scoured by the two women who seem possessed by the need to maintain a physical and psychological bastion against the world. Not surprisingly, both maintain control over Winnie, dragging her away from the fence bars through which she longingly stares. Neither, however, has the power of insight necessary to perceive the forces of rebellion rising within the little girl, forces that will lead to her breaking away from their power.
Of the adults, the person who both has the greatest power and is also the most powerless is the mysterious stranger. He is able to control Winnie's family, forcing them to sell their cherished land in return for knowledge of their missing daughter's whereabouts. He is able to lead the constable to the Tucks' home, and there he attempts to exert his power over the Tucks. When he seizes Winnie, however, and tells her that he will force her to drink the magical waters, his power abruptly ceases: Mae exerts her power by killing him. She will allow no one—especially not Winnie—to suffer, as they have, the powerlessness that immortality confers.
While the stranger seeks for and, to a degree, achieves power over others, he is in the thrall of a greater power, his monomaniacal quest to find, first, the Tucks and, when he does, the spring that gives them their immortality. He is initially described as being "‘like a well-handled marionette’" (18), and, as he strikes up a conversation with Winnie, his body twitches nervously and his foot taps constantly. The image and the action are appropriate. Like a marionette, he does not control his actions, and the force that impels him reveals itself in his nervous movements. He tells the Tucks that the old rumors about them possessed him, that the tune of Mae's music box "‘haunted my dreams’" (96). Study had not released him from his demons, and he abandoned his home to search for the family. His is a Faustian character, driven to lose his family and a sense of fellow humanity, the lack of which leads to his death. Only then is he free: the twitching is stilled; the controller has flung the marionette "carelessly into a corner, arms and legs every which way midst tangled strings" (102). Yet the stranger is free without fulfillment, for in his life he had not achieved the well-being that comes from the willing making of choices.
If the stranger is a prisoner of his desire to find the source of immortality, the Tucks are in the power of that source itself, which they neither sought nor desired. Powerless to die, they are (with the exception of Jesse) fully aware of their exclusion from the fullness of living that can only be achieved because of one's mortality. They are poor because of the richness of the human emotions that they possess but cannot exercise and experience as all other people can. Jesse is literally a case of arrested development: he will forever be an almost-adult—joyously carefree and never able to participate in the richness that maturing years bring. Miles has progressed beyond Jesse, but is imprisoned in his early middle age. A family man, he is feared by his wife and children when they grow older than he, and he must suffer the tragedy of knowing that they will all die before he does. If Jesse will never know what he has missed by being an eternal youth, Miles is forever excluded from what he briefly experienced and most desired. Yet he still hopes, probably in vain, for a better future, telling Winnie, "‘Someday … I'll find a way to do something important’" (86).
Of the three Tuck males, Angus, the father, has the clearest understanding of the helplessness of the situation in which his family is entrapped He explains to Winnie that life, like the waters of the pond, is ever-fluid, ever-changing, and that the immortality they experience renders them stuck in one place in the pond, unable to participate in the cycle of mutability, of life and death. His understanding has made him a prisoner of an almost constant melancholy and a yearning for what he can never have: death. The only power he does have is protecting the secret of the wondrous spring. He refuses to let Miles share it with his wife and children, worries constantly about its being discovered, and is horrified at the stranger's plan for selling the water and at the possibility of Mae's being unsuccessfully hanged. One of the few moments of relief he experiences during his never-ending life occurs when he learns of Winnie's death. Not only had she chosen the natural life denied him, but she had also kept the secret safe. Now that the spring has been destroyed, none but the Tucks will suffer from its accursed gift.
Whereas Tuck is deeply depressed and worried because of his understanding of the family's situation, Mae achieves a kind of freedom because of her philosophical acceptance of it. "‘Life's got to be lived’" she tells Winnie, "‘no matter how long or short…. You got to take what comes’" (54). Although she is forced to control Winnie briefly, she does so reluctantly, realizing the terror the girl is experiencing. She keeps her family together, tenderly supporting her husband and arranging the ten-year reunions with the boys. Her greatest act, the killing of the stranger, reveals the extent of the freedom she exercises within her controlled life. In order to liberate Winnie and, by extension, the rest of humanity from the prison of immortality, she chooses to kill the stranger, enabling all others to die and so to be free from the powerlessness immortality would bring.
The stranger and the Tucks are driven, he by the inner impulses that cause his wandering search, they by the necessity to avoid discovery by wandering like gypsies, deprived of the community they desire. Winnie, who possesses some of the qualities of the imprisoned adults, has the potential to grow into a truly free adulthood, one in which she partially controls her own destiny and is able to encounter the truly human experience of death. She could become like the Tucks, frozen forever at one stage of life; she could be possessed like the stranger, living a life bound to the story of the Tucks; or, perhaps worse, she could become proud and inflexible like her mother and grandmother. After all, the narrator observes that she was "in training" (50). In the course of four days, however, she breaks training, freely making choices that enable her to fulfill her desire to do "something that would make some kind of difference in the world" (15). A year after the destruction of the spring, she dies, having willingly kept its secret for nearly seven decades. Although her heroism is known to no one but the Tucks, it has made a great difference to the world.
Nearing adolescence, Winnie is powerless in many ways. She is kept behind the bars surrounding her house by her proud and overprotective family, and she seems to have no friends her own age. Perhaps she is also controlled by the family pride, for when she first meets Jesse Tuck in the woods, she informs him imperiously, "‘It's my wood…. I can come here whenever I want to’" (27), and is angry when the young man says that she should not drink from what she considers her spring. But she is restive under the controls of her life, decides to run away, and, in her treatment of Jesse, rebels against an older person for the first time in her life.
During the events of the first three days, adults still exert control over her. Her grandmother orders her into the house; the Tucks seize and carry her away; the stranger tries to take her from the Tucks; and the constable returns her to her home. Nonetheless, she gradually becomes aware of her ability to make her own choices about her life. After hearing the Tucks' story, she willingly travels the rest of the way to their cabin, because, she paradoxically "decided, there wasn't any choice" (43-44), and soon after, because she decides she wants to. Later, she makes the decision to keep their secret and to lie to the constable, "‘I came because I wanted to’" (102). This newfound freedom has developed, in large part, because she has come to understand the terrible fate of the Tucks and to experience for the first time the free, loving interplay between members of a family. Because they treat her as an individual, asking and pleading rather than forcing her to keep their secret and being always solicitous of her welfare, she knows that "She loved them" (91).
When Mae Tuck is arrested and Winnie realizes the enormity of the crisis facing them, she decides that she must take control of the situation: Winnie said something she had never said before … "‘Everything's going to be all right’" (104), and she is aware that she herself must keep the dreadful consequences from occurring. A girl with "her own strong sense of rightness" (118) and a deep love for both her own family and the Tucks, she understands that, in spite of what it will mean to her family's pride, "I have to help. If it wasn't for me, there wouldn't have been any trouble in the first place…. At midnight she would make a difference in the world" (115).
What happens to Winnie in the years after she helps Mae escape is not reported. The reader is left to imagine what she feels when she turn seventeen, at which time she could, as Jesse suggested, drink from the spring and spend eternity with him, a person whom she loves dearly and with whom, the novel implies, she could have enjoyed a wonderful (in many ways) relationship. What strength, what selflessness, what responsibility, what power she must have exercised, what truly profound wisdom. She was, as Tuck so reverently murmurs, a good girl. In a world where power over others has been so evident, she has demonstrated a greater power—over herself and for others.
In Tuck Everlasting, Babbitt has created a novel of delicacy, gentleness, and great power. A girl living and dying in the relative obscurity of a small Midwestern town has achieved, unknown to all but four immortal unknowns, great heroism. Babbitt has portrayed that heroism in words that live two decades after the publication of the book and that will continue to live for sensitive readers who respond to the story's exquisite artistry and profound themes.
Aippersbach, Kim. "Tuck Everlasting and the Tree at the Center of the World." Children's Literature in Education 21, no. 2 (June 1990): 83-97.
Studies the symbolic meanings found in Tuck Everlasting's fairy tale narrative structure.
Hartvigsen, M. Kip, and Christen Brog Hartvigsen. "‘Lough and Soft, Both at Once’: Winnie Foster's Initiation in Tuck Everlasting." Children's Literature in Education 18, no. 3 (September 1987): 176-82.
Reviews the cyclic nature of life in Tuck Everlasting.
Odean, Kathleen. Review of Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. In Great Books for Girls, pp. 237. New York, N.Y.: Ballantine Books, 1997.
Lauds Tuck Everlasting as a "beautifully written novel."
Additional coverage of Babbitt's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 51; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 5; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 2, 53; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 19, 38, 126; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 52; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Ed. 5; Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 6, 68, 106; and Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 5.