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Future Classics: Tuck Everlasting

by Tim Wynne-Jones

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.

tuckeverlastingA novel by its very name cannot help becoming un-novel, 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 learned 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.

From the November/December 2000 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more, click the tag Natalie Babbitt.

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