Home is not a place
by Gordon Campbell
There’s so much crap in children’s bookshops and children’s tolerance of what is put in front of them is so immense, it should not be abused. That’s why it seems worth singling out some of the enduringly good books that, thanks to librarians and online purchasing, are still available.
Curiosity has always been a good friend of creativity. Reportedly, Cynthia Voigt got the idea for Homecoming after looking one day at some kids in a supermarket parking lot, and wondering what would happen if their parents never came back to the car for them. Thus, we got the book’s opening paragraph, which could easily qualify as the “Call me Ishmael” of children’s literature.
“ The woman put her sad moon face in at the window of the car. “ You be good,” she said. “ You hear me? You little ones, mind what Dicey tells you. You hear?”
Yes Momma.” they said.
And so the mother slings her purse over her shoulder, and walks away, forever. The economy of that paragraph is remarkable. It conveys the sadness of the mother and her shaky grip on reality, the trust and dependence of the children, and the authority suddenly vested in Dicey as the effective head of the family. Over the next four hundred pages Voigt lets us know how 13 year old Dicey copes with this weight of responsibility, and how she manages – though left with hardly any money – to feed and shelter her siblings, keep them together as a family, and lead them finally to a place of security.
If you want it to, the story can be seen as having a mythic dimension. Obviously, there are a lot of folk tales about orphans who use their courage and wits to thwart adversity, and find their place in the world. Its probably no accident that the story of Hansel and Gretel crops up in the first chapter of this book. One critic has even found a plausible link between almost every single major plot point in Homecoming and The Odyssey – but new readers can relax, because the story easily stands by itself.
Dicey and her three siblings happen to be caught between irresponsible and/or mentally ill adults who have bailed on them, and authorities who threaten to pull the family apart and put the children into separate foster homes, The focus is always pragmatic, and down to earth. Dicey is a ferociously practical heroine. She needs to be, because the world is stacked against her survival. After she ingeniously manages to catch some fish while living off the land in a seaside park, a salesman tells her that it’s against the law to be catching fish in that location :
How were they supposed to eat then, Dicey asked herself. By buying food, she answered. The whole world was arranged for people who had money—for adults who had money…Well, she could handle it. Somehow.
Voigt, with typical clarity, once expressed her own personal appreciation of Dicey : “ She is the kind of 13 year old I would have liked to have been.. instead of being a sort of mashed potato, lumpish sort of person.” Like Philip Pullman, Voigt spent many years of her life as a schoolteacher, and has said that she learned in the classroom to respect people who seem to be difficult.
In her experience, the adult world commonly tells children more than enough about the need for compromise, and about not taking a stand too firmly on one side or the other. ‘There’s a kind of anti-character that society welcomes…[and] one of the things that’s true of the Tillermans that’s not supposed to be popular is that they’re very strong characters. They often slip over into arrogance, and I’m always delighted that people welcome that in them. Especially in young people, the call for the lowest common denominator bothers me…I guess I always like people who make unhedged bets.” In another interview, she put it this way :
Dicey does seem to speak to a lot of people despite her prickliness, despite the fact they probably wouldn’t like to have her living next door. She knows what’s important to her. I’d like to be the kind of person who knew that about herself. That I wouldn’t fall to pieces in a crisis, or I wouldn’t let other people take care of me badly, rather than taking care of myself. That the kind of things that were important, were that important to me. Most of us don’t know, beyond hypothetical dinner conversations, if my child or my dog were drowning, which one would I save? That kind of thing. But Dicey in fact, actually knows.
Homecoming, as veterans of the Tillerman saga will know, is merely the first part of the story. Dicey’s relationship with her mother is finally resolved in the excellent sequel Dicey’s Song. In all, there are seven books devoted to the Tillerman children, their relatives and various friends who cross their path. The grand result is an interlocking set of perspectives which serve to remind us that everyone has a history, and that everyone involved has their own vantage point on much the same events. Voigt wrote all these books in a burst of creativity from the early 1980s onwards. In 1989, she wisely left the 21 year old Dicey and the rest of the Tillermans to their own devices, and moved on.
The facts of Voigt’s life are easily sketched. Born in 1942, she pursued a career in advertising, married and became a teacher. After her divorce in the early 1970s, she re-married and began writing in earnest. Homecoming put her on the map, and Dicey’s Song won the Newberry Medal for excellence in children’s literature in 1983. A prolific writer in many different genres, Voigt has never quite got out from under the immense critical and popular success of the Tillerman series. Early on, she once explained, the decision to pursue her desire to write had been a defining moment in her life :
I remember turning 30, and everyone around me was palpitating at 30 and feeling they were terribly old. I had just successfully evicted my first husband, and I had a daughter of a year, with whom I had fallen in love, and I had my teaching profession. I didn’t feel like I was entering old age, I felt like I was ripe, and I said to myself : you know, maybe it doesn’t matter if you never get published. Maybe you just do it because you want to do it, because it makes your life richer, and keeps you sane. The question of whether I was going to fail or not became almost irrelevant…
Homecoming was her third book, and the first to be published. Dicey’s three siblings are all well drawn – and they establish their personalities largely through words and actions, not through overt description. James, ten, is academically bright and rational, his little brother Sammy is a feisty and emotionally volatile six year old, and in between is the musically gifted and ethereal Maybeth, a girl so painfully shy that strangers tend to treat her as mentally handicapped.
Initially, once they realize their mother has gone for good, the children head towards the home of an elderly great-aunt who had lived miles away in the city of Bridgeport. Unfortunately, their aunt is dead – and their cousin Eunice has a religiosity that proves to be a very mixed blessing. (‘Cousin Eunice’s house wasn’t free, it was expensive—and the price was always remembering to be grateful.’)
Ultimately, the plan that Cousin Eunice hatches for the family with the local priests and nuns leave the Tillermans with only one option – to hit the highway again, this time heading towards a distant grandmother who proves to be hostile, and could well be deranged. In Homecoming, any refuge for the children seems to be exceptionally hard won, and conditional. Dicey’s early encounters with the grandmother for instance, are like something from a darkly humorous Grimm’s fairy tale :
‘You like my spaghetti?’ her grandmother asked.
“No,’ Dicey said, “ but I’m hungry. Do you like it?”
‘Its easy to fix. You know what I sometimes think?’ Her grandmother looked straight at her, her mouth chewing.” I sometimes think people might be good to eat. Cows and chickens eat corn and grass and turn it into good meat. People eat cows and chickens. In people, it might turn into something even better. Do you ever think that?’
Dicey shook her head.
‘Especially babies,” her grandmother said. She swallowed thoughtfully. “Or children. Do you have any brothers or sisters?’
In the subsequent books, Dicey develops friends beyond her immediate family. The book A Solitary Blue, for instance traces the back story of her boyfriend Jeff Greene. His hippie mother Melody had left him behind when he was seven, supposedly to go off and make the world a better place via a range of political causes. As Voigt once observed, Jeff doesn’t so much resolve things with his self-serving mother – in fact, he doesn’t at all – as arrive by book’s end, at a deeper understanding of the nature of love. “ And the nature of love,’ Voigt added wryly, ‘isn’t a plot point.’ As in real life, situations change, but nothing is ever finally resolved. It is one of the strengths of these books that the story of the Tillermans seems so open ended.
Voigt’s questioning – almost querulous at times – approach to her characters makes the journey through the saga a consistently surprising one. At 21 in the final book Seventeen Against the Dealer, Dicey is not being set up to marry her true love Jeff, though that could happen. Happily ever after, as Dicey says in one of the earlier books, is not how things work out for the Tillermans. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dicey’s leadership skills are the very things that render her personally obnoxious at times, and capable of making seriously bad decisions. In this case, they lead her into being conned out of her livelihood by an unscrupulous newcomer in town who turns out to have been her father.
There is a lot to admire in all these books. Sons from Afar, in which James and Sammy set out to find their father is flawed but worthwhile – and The Runner, which tells the story of Dicey’s angry and obstinate uncle who gets killed in Vietnam, is even better. Come a Stranger, which traces the story of Mina, an extroverted black girl who befriends Dicey at school, is also highly recommended. Even so, the Homecoming/Dicey’s Song story is really the core of the enterprise. Published in 1981, it has a couple of hippie-era incidentals at one point that date it momentarily – but it is easy to accept them, and move on. In Dicey and her grandmother, Voigt has created two unforgettably strong female characters, and watching the two of them lock horns is one of the book’s real pleasures.
Eventually, Dicey comes to realize how much she loves sailing. Not just for its tactile pleasures, but for its almost spiritual qualities .
Boats, waves, water, wind: through the wood she felt them working for her. She was not directing, but accompanying them, turning them to her use. She didn’t work against them, but with them; and she made the boat do that too. It wasn’t power she felt, guiding the tiller, but purpose.
While Dicey is trying to get the family somehow across Chesapeake Bay, Voigt spins a lovely extended metaphor out of this situation, one that speaks for the girl’s entire struggle :
Maybe…people were like boats. They were big, important yachts and little rafts and motorboats and sailboats and working boats and pleasure boats. And some really big boats like ocean liners or tankers – these would be rich and powerful people, whose lives engulfed many other lives and carried them along. Or maybe each boat was a kind of family. Then what kind of boat would the Tillermans be? A little one, bobbing about, with the mast fallen off? A grubby, worn-down workboat, with Dicey hanging onto the rudder for dear life ?
Everybody who was born was cast into the sea. Winds would blow them in all directions. Tides would rise and turn, in their own rhythm. And the boats – they just went along as best they could, trying to find a harbour.
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For this essay, Gordon Campbell drew upon essays (esp, the interviews with Cynthia Voigt by Roger Sutton and Hazel Rochman) and reviews from volume 48 of the Children’s Literature Review.