Whether they recognize her name or not, most elementary school students know Natalie Babbitt very well. They know her through the pages of her book, Tuck Everlasting, which seems like a typical children’s story but in fact masterfully raises a complicated question of immortality, namely: What if we could live forever?
This week, news of Babbitt’s death reminded readers of Tuck that the author had fulfilled the promise she laid out in her beautiful book: That life is a wheel that is always turning, and that people are always entering, “always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on.”
For those who haven’t read it, Tuck Everlasting follows the four members of the Tuck family who innocently drink water from a spring that gives them eternal life. Never aging, never succumbing to sickness or death, they travel from place to place experiencing life again and again. After 87 years, a ten-year old girl named Winnie Foster stumbles upon them and their secret, and now must make an anguishing choice: Should she live forever and have good times that never end, or experience the untold power of certain change (and death)?
The book’s origins, like so many great stories, can be traced to the questioning mind of a child—Babbitt’s own daughter once had a dream about dying. Babbitt insisted that her book was never intended to do anything as dull as teach a lesson. Tuck was about something far more real and present in our lives—dilemmas. “[T]he book doesn’t present any lessons about what’s right and what’s wrong, but it does point out how difficult these decisions are,” Babbitt said in an interview.
From the first pages of the prologue of Tuck Everlasting, it’s clear you aren’t reading a typical children’s book. The unfurling descriptions of just about everything in the book, from the soil at Winnie’s feet to the first weeks of August (“curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color”) to the sun (which “hung at mid-heaven for a blinding hour”) are evocative and masterful brushstrokes by an author posing as witness to the world around us. Babbitt writes like someone who is recording memories, like someone who will one day no longer see these things.
Babbitt also saw beyond the childrearing trends of her own time (the book was first published in 1975), including the unlimited neighborhood roaming and limited anxiety about processed food for which so many of us 1970s kids are grateful; it even has something to say to our current age of overly-anxious parenting. She hints at the smothering effects of the too-cautious parent who would take coincidence and consequence out of a child’s life, “protecting” them by penning them in too closely.
Winnie knows no freedom from her mother and grandmother beyond her front yard until she decides one day to run to the woods, alone; after meeting the Tuck family, she decides to run away with these new friends, to a home where she gets to eat her maple syrup with her fingers. In her freedom, Winnie escapes all fear of the unknown:
“Closing the gate on her oldest fears as she had closed the gate on her own fenced yard, she discovered the wings she’d always wished she had. And all at once she was elated. Where were the terrors she’d been told she should expect? She could not recognize them anywhere. The sweet earth opened out its wide four corners to her like the petals of a flower ready to be picked, and it shimmered with light and possibility till she was dizzy with it. Her mother’s voice, the feel of home, receded for the moment and her thoughts turned forward.”
Once Winnie makes the decision to leave and has an adventure all her own, she realizes that she is “different” from those who remained behind; her experience of independence changed her. She finds it bittersweet—“satisfying and lonely”—in the same way that a child who goes off to college and escapes her hovering helicopter parents might today. Winnie’s parents eventually realize that in tasting freedom, some part of Winnie they had fiercely held on to “had slipped away.”
There is much in Babbitt’s books to remind a grateful reader of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle. She refused to put small talk or small ideas on the pages of her children’s novels. Stimulating vocabulary was far more beneficial—for the author and the reader—though it went against the trends of the time. “Some time during the last forty years, people have decided that children can’t understand any words that have more than four or five letters,” she said. “That’s just plain crazy.” Babbitt used big words unapologetically, saying she and her friends were no smarter than kids of later generations and so she felt no need to “fudge on vocabulary!”
Babbitt also wrote for the ageless reader—Tuck is a book that shouldn’t be classified merely as a “children’s book.” When Angus, the patriarch of the Tuck family, tries to make Winnie understand the horror that is his “forever,” he tells her that forever means not having a living history, it means existing without having an ending. “We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road,” Tuck tells her. “Such people are left behind.” The abhorrent simplicity of it stuns you whether you are a child considering it for the first time or a mother thinking of it far more intensely.
Babbitt also captures that moment when a child understands—truly understands—something powerful and self-affecting:
“Winnie blinked, and all at once her mind was drowned with understanding of what he was saying. For she—yes, even she—would go out of the world willy-nilly someday. Just go out like the flame of a candle . . . it was a certainty.”
Winnie in turn “rages against it, helpless and insulted.” Winnie is each and every one of us who rebels against the contract of life—“being part of the whole thing.” That’s the “blessing,” as Babbitt wrote. That’s the deal—a beginning, middle and end whether we are ten, thirty-five, or eighty-five. Winnie desperately wants to make a difference in the world—and she does, by living the life she was meant to live until its natural end and leaving her children to carry on.
In her lifetime, Babbitt talked about her own fears, including the loss of literacy, especially among children, not a surprising concern for a woman who counted Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll among her favorite authors. Babbitt also counted reading such classics as among the great blessings of the passage of our days. When we accept that there must be a beginning and an ending, we create the possibility that these words will be available to our children’s children and every generation that comes after. That is a legacy well worth admiring. RIP Natalie Babbitt.