One of the benefits of being a student of children’s literature is that you get to revisit a lot of books from your childhood. Some of these books I read so long ago it feels like another lifetime, but I remember the way they made me feel, and it’s interesting to compare that to how they make me feel now as a sometimes adult.
Recently, I revisited Tuck Everlasting1 by Natalie Babbitt, a novel I read for the first time in elementary school and have reread several times since then. Each time I revisit it, my affection for this skinny little book has grown, until this week it exploded in a mess of inarticulate feelings all over the freshmen I was supposed to be teaching it to2. Because every time I read it, it’s different. Or rather, I’m different, and my experience adjusts accordingly. In Tuck Everlasting, the difference stands out most strongly in the character I see myself as.
The first time I read Tuck Everlasting, I was Winnie Foster. I must have been around ten myself, with that same sort of righteous indignation3 stored up inside my heart. And I felt the weight of everything, the impossible weight of entering the double digits, or starting to understand that there were forces at work in the world that I could not control. Why couldn’t we all live forever? Why did beautiful things have to end? Why couldn’t you drink the water and live forever with the carefree boy you found in the woods? I understood that things had to die, but I couldn’t understand why.
The next time I read it, many years later in high school, I was Jesse. Barefoot, bounding Jesse, wildly in love with everything about living, even the parts I didn’t like. I felt like I was always bubbling up with something, like there was this fountain inside me that would never run dry. There was nothing at work beyond the confines of my small sphere of existence, which would never cease to be amazing. Time did not exist. I felt invincible. I wasn’t, but I felt like I was, like I could never be irreparably broken, inside or out.
Then the next time, starting my second semester of grad school, I was Miles. A little bit heavier with what I’d left behind and carrying around empty holes that weighed just as much as the things and people that used to fill them. Not quite certain what I was or where I was meant to fit in the world, and not sure how to go about puzzling all that out. And I had started to understand not just the forces of the world and how they worked on me, but that I was a part of them. Where I sat on the wheel. How it carried me. And that someday I’d fall off it, just like everyone does.
And then I read this book last week, and I thought about who I am now.
Now I’m sort of all of them. I’m old and I’m young. One day I feel indestructible. The next like I’m already in pieces that can never be put back together. I am Tuck, with regrets and things I wish I had not done. I am Mae, trying to hold things together that maybe can’t be held. I am Gran, who hears fairy music in the woods. Some days I’m even the Man in the Yellow Suit, aware of the fact that I could exploit and hurt those around me if I wanted to.
While Tuck Everlasting is most often billed as a children’s book about the perils of living forever, really it’s a book about how we all live every day on terms with life’s big incomprehensible ideas, and it gives no easy answers to any of the questions it asks. Because in the end, there is no easy answer. To anything. It’s most truthful in that sense. I don’t understand everything about living and dying—no one does. Some days, I can wrap my brain around the immensity of it and have a few minutes of peace and clarity and understanding about how the earth moves. Other days, it totally freaks me out.
Today while discussing this book with my freshmen, some of them expressed dissatisfaction with the ending *SPOILER ALERT*—they wanted to know why Winnie didn’t drink the water and live forever with the Tucks. What happened between Jesse leaving her with a bottle of water on her front lawn and Tuck finding her tombstone eighty years later? They felt like something was missing.
For me, there is nothing dissatisfying about this ending. In fact, I think it is the perfect end for this perfect book. Because the answer to the question “What happened?” is that life happened. Winnie’s life. There didn’t have to be one big idea, one revelation, one moment of decision or impact where she realized truly that death and life are interchangeable. There didn’t have to be one thing that made her realize that life with death was better than life without it. Because life is that moment—life and its great bit pile of good things and bad things and the things that come in between.
As the Man in the Yellow Suit says, “Like all magnificent things, it is very simple.” And then again, it’s not.
- If you don’t know or haven’t read Tuck Everlasting, please rectify that immediately. Not to oversell it, but it’s a staggering work of impossible genius.
- Contrary to how this makes it sounds, my freshers and I did have a very coherent and amazing discussion about Tuck Everlasting today. It was awesome enough to inspire this post, actually. But I do have a lot of feelings, which they were on the receiving end of in the last few minutes of class.
- I was totally that kid who said “I am running away!” And then made it to the corner before coming back. It was the principle of the thing.