Usually filed under “children’s literature”, Tuck Everlasting is a story that explores the very mature theme of death. Frequently recommended to parents as a way of conducting “the death talk”, the story is about a girl named Winnie Foster and her brief adventure with the Tuck family, a group of four normal country folk who have gained the power/curse of immortality.
During my read I treated this book as a novella, rather than a kid’s book, but this review will consider the book in the latter context. We’ll be talking about that under “Narrative” below. For plot and characters, however, Tuck Everlasting will be held to the same standards of any story ever told. There will be spoilers.
As a premise the plot is great. The explanation of the Tucks’ source of immortality is plausible though open-ended enough to hint at cosmological origins. The entire series of events, from Winnie’s meeting, abduction, and rescue of the family, was entertaining and capable of commanding your attention, whether you’re a kid or a kid-at-heart. Sometimes simplicity works, and the novel focuses on its core issue, which is essentially tied to its message, without distraction, delivering a pure narrative that has childish and country-like charm.
The biggest plot point to me, however, was not the rescuing of Mae Tuck, but whether or not Winnie would choose to become immortal when she turned seventeen, as proposed by Jesse Tuck. The idea was that they would stay young forever, and experience the world and all of eternity together so that they won’t ever have to be alone again. That was the primary reason I read the story all the way to the end (yeah, sometimes I’m a sucker for romance… but shush).
And this was where the big disappointment happened. We learn in the epilogue that Winnie chose not to become immortal, but that is only revealed by the elder Tucks visiting the town years later and seeing Winnie’s grave. This was cruelly disappointing because we never got to see Winnie make her choice or why. The last chapter has her sharing the source of immortality with a frog so that it won’t get hurt, which suggests she has no problem with using and bestowing the power. Sure, she was only ten years old, but the narrative suggests that mindset to us, the reader, because that’s all we got! And then in the next chapter she’s dead of old age. We don’t even see Jesse’s reaction. The ending made me feel cheated, because the premise promised me an emotional payload, but we are left to ponder it on our own, which just isn’t enough.
Thinking about it now, perhaps that’s what Babbitt intended: for kids to ask their parents why Winnie didn’t choose to live forever. I don’t got no kids though; I’m just a guy looking for a good story. But, c’est la vie, the world is cruel to us bachelor(ette)s. I just never expected to be left out of a book on top of everything else… Le sigh.
Not much to be said here. Winnie is a believable ten-year-old, and Babbitt goes the extra mile by highlighting her fears and innermost thoughts with convincingly clarity that is bound to make children identify with her instantly, and to make adults reminisce upon a time when the world was simple and carefree.
The Tucks are an adorable bunch, mostly because they’re coloured by Winnie’s impression of them. My favourite Tuck was Angus, the father. His introductory scene is quite depressing, and highlights how immortality can be a curse in just a single paragraph without explicitly stating it. Every Tuck rings a note of sympathy however, and the plot effectively allows us to feel sorry for this family that accidentally became immortal.
I promise I won’t get too philosophical.
When I was a kid I don’t remember being afraid of death. Maybe I did worry about it for a little while, because that’s the natural response when you’re introduced to the idea of everything ending, but I think I was more saddened by the realization that my parents would have to die one day, and also their parents, their friends, my friends, my aunts and uncles, and so on. It’s not the state-change that mattered, but the loss of relationships, the people who make you smile and who you love.
The narrative had no need to communicate this feeling, because it is so natural a thought (and feeling) that kids will understand the significance of immortality almost immediately. On the one hand nothing can hurt us (as shown by Winnie’s encounters with the frog), and on the other hand we end up watching everyone and everything around us fade away (as Mae and Angus explains). Framing a plot within the grand theme of immortality was brilliant, precisely because anyone with a concept of life and love will understand the significance of death.
The only question left hanging is why Winnie chose not to escape from death. An interesting story could’ve been had if this question was expanded in either direction. With the way the story ends, we learn she chose life and death, but the narrative (and consequently the theme) would’ve been helped immensely by an explanation. A letter left to Jesse, or the Tucks, would’ve made me cry, honestly, but more importantly it would’ve cemented Winnie as a heroine in our hearts, to hear her own words about why she chose to live a malleable and uncertain life. As is, there’s a noticeable chunk missing from the narrative, and a missed opportunity to have Winnie become a truly immortal character amongst other classical literary figures.
I’d recommend it as a fun read. It’s a touching tale with simple prose, and a good study in effective children’s literature. If you’re a parent, this is a healthy dose of reality for those with impressionable minds, and is indeed a good introduction to some serious grown-up talk about life and death. I’ve got nothing to say about the movie, because it looks horrible, but as the adage goes: never judge a book by its movie.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.