At this point, your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Grad School Reviews: Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting
By Natalie Babbitt
But it on Amazon

I ended up reading this book (a $2.99 bargain buy at yet another Borders "going out of business" sale) in pretty close proximity to my picking through of Charles Portis' True Grit (yet another read I'm not focusing on as I'd like because of "work" reading), so there's a small chance I'm making a few more connections between the two than I need. Still, there were some commonalities I thought the books shared both in how they worked as a piece of writing as how they worked culturally. Because I'm a glutton for looking stupid, let's start on the former.

To begin, I'll admit to being a super novice on both works outside of knowing their names as basic premises. I've seen the original "True Grit" film about ten or so times over the years with my mother, but I was totally unaware of its origins on the page. My experience with Tuck came when its most recent movie version came out and the previews teasing the plot of a timeless family in the 1800s somehow made me recall that I'd heard of the book at one point. I'd never read it though. The real connection between first sitting down to tap into these books though was how surprised I was when I realized how relatively modern both books were. Grit was written in 1968 and Tuck in 1975. And no, I wasn't alive in either of those years, but I think in my head I so often think of period fiction as coming much closer to the period its set in. At least, with these specific genres I had a vague sense that Westerns were more written in the era of the pulps and then into the '50s more so than they were the latter half of the 20th Century. And that kind of mystical storybook novel category that Tuck fits well enough in always felt like a product of sort of post-Victorian lit like The Secret Garden or some such.

Now, I mention this not just to make me look dumb (because, let's face it, about five minutes of clear-headed though could have dispelled my assumptions about when these were written without the aide of Wikipedia) but because the writers of each novel draw a certain strength from the distance they have from their setting. And I don't even mean than in the traditional "fly in amber" kind of specificity that a lot of historical fiction tends to carry with it by dint of being written by history heads. In a very direct story sense, both these books use the passage of time as a real reflection of who their characters are and where they travel in the course of the novel.

In True Grit we see this change in Mattie Ross' eventual tracking down of Rooster (or his grave) at novels end and the glimpse of how what we now canonize as The Wild West was always a bit more created by drama and hucksterism than it was by history. Mattie's reaction to this romanticized idea betrays the toughness at her heart – the grit if you will – that made her so stubborn at 14 and through to the 1900s much as it did Rooster. In Tuck Everlasting, the entire story is imbued with a certain sense of fragility. Even though the events addressed in the novel take place over generations, that wide stretch of time allows Babbitt to see the lifespan of more than single people or small moments. This is best embodied in the wood where the eternal spring of the Tuck family hides. It was born of a full forrest, saved by the stompings of a frightened cow heard and the bonds of magic and in the end eventually eaten by the hand of development -- something that could only be seen from a vantage point like the '70s. But that balance of life and death plays out in every major moment in the novel from the speech old Tuck gives Winnie on the lake full of bugs and fish through the sudden (and unavoidable?) murder of the man in the yellow suit on through to the final scene where the Tucks – obviously the only things allowed to stand outside time – find Winnie's grave.

The number two thing that really drew these books together in my brain is that they both had a construction that struck me as very filmic. Zero surprise after reading the books that they've both been made into films twice. And yeah it's for different reasons that they're so easily adaptable. Portis' story is driven not just by a classic film genre (which the Western had been for decades when he wrote it) but by humor and dialogue and things that stay out of the way of a director's lens.

Babbitt's book, on the other hand, took an approach to point of view and pacing that gave it a more traditional structure which moved the personal story easily to an ensemble drama. Thought a lot about this after all the talk of psychic distance at residency, but really the only character we see truly from a third person limited perspective is Winnie, whose thought we sit in for most of the book as she's our true POV heroine. But early in the first chapters and later as the action swings back to Winnie's home with the horse-thieving man in the yellow suit, the "camera" shifts to other characters without ever really getting into their heads. We somewhat see what the Tuck's think and feel in their opening chapters and the end, but that's all revealed through action and dialogue rather than in the prose itself. In a way, Babbitt serves two masters in the book by bending the rules – never really fudging the voice away from her protagonist while also working in the necessary plot devices to drive a textbook "most important three act-structured day in your life" chain of events.

Point of view and voice are some powerful stuff when you get 'em right. Both these books nailed it in their young protagonists. Trying to keep that front and center in my brain.

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