Books that Built Us: ‘Tuck Everlasting’ by Natalie Babbitt
I was in the sixth grade, existing in that cruel, pre-adolescent middle school space the first time I read “Tuck Everlasting.” The young adult novel was required reading in English class, and once we’d finished Gary Paulson’s “Hatchet,” Natalie Babbitt’s novel was passed around. The binding of the book on reception was anything but captivating, depicting a barn-red home against a yellow backdrop. When I started the novel, I remember thinking to myself that the days of good school books were effectively over.
Of course, I was wrong.
“Tuck” is a poster of the liturature of my youth because it made me cry. Up until the brutal, disconsolate ending of the book — a plot finale experienced readers of literature may predict, but one wholly unexpected by kids reading along with their teacher — I had limited most of my reading to adventure fiction. I had experienced nothing like the authentic and harsh reality of “Tuck.” The story, through all of its magic and peril, offered a redeeming hope: The main character, Winnie, would wait for one of the Tucks, Jesse, by drinking from the spring that offers eternal life and therefore living until his return — or so it appears. Instead, the Tucks return to Winnie’s town decades later to find her grave. She neglected to drink the water and await true love. And so the book ends.
How, I wondered, could someone offer such a wonderful tonic of love and language and then rip its very roots from readers? And why?
These questions are what make Babbitt’s novel wonderful. There’s a certain air of originality about “Tuck Everlasting.” Halfway between a razor thin Oates story and a picture book for children, it serves as a fertile middle ground for a young reader’s first foray into literature.
Babbitt maintains a fiction that borders on mysticism: a fountain of youth, preteen angst, immortality and love at first sight. Simultaneously, “Tuck” breaks from the expected young adult mysticism like that in, say, “Percy Jackson,” in order to offer themes of contemporary literary fiction. Most notably, death is a passive event in “Tuck,” not some description to foment the intrigue of plot. Readers, largely for the first time, are extended a depiction of human mortality removed from swords and spells, one that echoes the genuine weight of death on those outlasting the deceased.
Be careful what you wish for, the Tucks thus seem to urge. An ending should be embraced, not shied away from. To an extent, rebellion is healthy. Reading in sixth grade, I was thrust into this space of reality. Shock was to be expected.
Babbitt crafts her work so well to the point that it isn’t the Tucks’ immortality that removes the tale from reality, but the distant history in which it takes place. Because the event is placed in the past, the occultism of the Tucks maintains a taste of adventurous superstition that feels somewhat out of reach to readers. This detached setting is balanced with themes that are unsparingly authentic to young readers, making for a work that is fictitious and intriguing while still echoing truth.
Between these exclamations of truths, Babbitt takes opportunity to insert rich imagery, especially descriptions of the environment that the unsure Winnie is placed into. The backdrop of a scorching August dares to give a glance into a setting that holds for more than just a purpose of plot-forwarding scenarios. “It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color,” Babbitt writes. “These are strange and breathless days.” It’s layered and coherent without being overly verbose — elevating “Tuck” high enough for readers to marvel.
“Tuck Everlasting” was my vehicle into contemporary, mature fiction. The book chops off a slice of childhood that we have all felt at one moment or another: one of familial dissatisfaction, isolation or a seeming blank-slate identity crisis. Inserted into the supernatural yet frank world of the Tucks and their yearning for genuine life, Babbitt reveals to young readers an opening onto a path of literary fiction. And immersed in the wonderful, aching world of “Tuck,” we have no choice but to follow into the wood.