BOOKS

'Tuck Everlasting' Is A Childhood Classic That Stands The Test Of Time

The following is an excerpt from the 40th anniversary edition of Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting, for which Wicked author Gregory Maguire wrote the introduction. Below, Maguire cites the Young Adult novel's merits as a work with rich and timeless themes.

Time, like story, moves only forward.

Once you open a book and read the first line -- like my six­-word sentence above -- you can never un-read it. You might forget it till you see it again, but you can never return to the state of total unknowing.

The same holds true for storytelling.

Now, I don't know about you, but I am the sort who tries very hard not to read the front flap of a dust jacket. Those beckoning paragraphs often give away the plot. Consequently, I avoid reviews, blurbs, jacket copy, and forewords whenever I can. I prefer to explore a text on my own, to discover its secrets for myself. No spoilers.

If you’ve never read Tuck Everlasting before, and you feel as I do, why not let the author of this book, Natalie Babbitt, share this story at her own pace and discretion? I remember what it means to approach this book for the first time, having no notion what lies ahead.

So I have an idea. Pause here. Jump ahead and read Tuck Everlasting. This story shoots like an arrow off a quivering bow. When you’ve finished, come back to the asterisks below and finish the foreword.

But linger in the story as long as you like. I’m in no hurry. I have all the time in the world. You’ll be back at these asterisks before you know it.

* * *

While a reader can never go back and encounter a book again for the first time, one of the many miracles in storytelling is this: A story has an infinite number of opportunities to begin.

Think of it this way. Imagine you take this very volume that you have in your hands to your grandfather, who has lost his reading glasses. You say to him “I just finished this fantastic book and I want to share it with you. Listen.”

You open to the first page (again). You read the prologue with its image of time like a never-ending circle. Time like a revolving Ferris wheel supplied with a year’s worth of months, a wheel that never alters the order of progression. (April must follow March.) Nor the rate of progress. (The Fourth of July happens precisely every 365 days. Except in a leap year -- every rule has its exception.)

What an unforgettable image that is, by the way. “The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer the top of the live-long year...” I’ve remembered it for nearly forty years already. I’ve gone around on time’s Ferris wheel nearly forty times since I first read this prologue.

I also love that phrase, “the live-long year.”

Then you turn to the first chapter, about “the road that led to Treegap,” and then the second chapter, about Mae Tuck setting out to meet her sons, Miles and Jesse, who “had... looked exactly the same for eighty-seven years.”

Weird and wonderful as this is, you press on. Chapter three. Winnie Foster talks to a toad in the road about wanting to be alone for a while, wanting to be unsupervised.

Here's the funny thing. You are encountering Winnie again. You know what she is going to find, and face, and fume about, and figure out. But for your grandfather, listening intently, and for Winnie, she is beginning her adventure as if it has never happened.

It’s almost as if, in a story, time has two different talents: the talent to proceed inevitably, like an arrow across a meadow aiming toward a target, and a talent to begin again, like that Ferris wheel rolling endlessly through its circuit.

This is true of all stories. Jill Paton Walsh, a writer friend of mine, once wrote that you need only open Act One of Hamlet to find the ghost of Hamlet’s father haunting the ramparts of Elsinore, and all the bloody sorrow of that drama begins again. Every time you read “In a hole in a ground there lived a Hobbit,” you realize that Bilbo Baggins’s departure from the Shire and his eventual encounter with Smaug is all ahead of him—and you. The endings of stories are intact, waiting for you to get there. For every “once upon a time” there is a “happily ever after.”

Well. Almost. This story may be an exception to that rule. For while this story has an absolute beginning, a “once upon a time,” Tuck Everlasting -- alone of all the stories I have ever read in my entire life -- has no absolute end.

* * *
When I was instructing young people who wanted to become English teachers, I found that many of them didn't know the difference between plot and theme.

I tried to help them. A plot, I said, is what happens. It involves the names of characters and the actions they take.

Charlotte spins a web with words in it to save Wilbur the pig from becoming bacon. That’s a plot. It happens in time and in sequence: first threat, then Charlotte’s solution, then rescue. In that order.

A theme, I said, tells why the author wrote the book. A theme is the ambitious idea upon which an author stands when aiming the arrow of plot. A theme must be explained without using the names of characters or the description of events.

In Charlotte's Web, one theme might be: True friendship is worth sacrifice.

In The Hobbit, one theme might be: Even the lowly may do great deeds.

In Hamlet, one theme might be: Self-knowledge is essential to strive for but may be impossible to gain.

In Tuck Everlasting -- this book belongs among those other great works of literature -- one theme might be: Every choice we make has a reward and a cost.

Books can have more than one theme. That’s one of the reasons to reread them. That is why I can reread Tuck Everlasting over and over, even though when I meet Winnie Foster again standing in her front yard, I know exactly what she will do later in the book.

What I don’t know is what it will mean to me now. For I grow older, year by year. Life and joy, sorrow and understanding, they all wash against me, changing me day by day, year by year. When I return to the same place on time’s Ferris wheel that I remember from the year before, the place may seem the same but I have changed. I have to look again, to see what the author’s views might suggest to me, what they mean now.

* * *

Okay. Maybe you're one of those people, like Winnie, who doesn't always follow the rules. Even if you've never read Tuck Everlasting before, you may not have taken my advice. You may have ripped ahead this far into my foreword before slipping into the novel itself.

If so, you’ll be relieved to learn that I’ve worked hard not to give the plot away. I’ve hinted about a lot of things, but I’ve done so slyly. After you do finish reading the novel, come back and reread this foreword again. The words will be familiar to you, but they’ll mean something different because you’ll be a different person. You’ll be a person who has now read Tuck Everlasting.

Natalie Babbitt is a distant but dear friend of mine. At the fortieth anniversary of the publication of this celebrated and beloved novel, I’m honored to provide these few comments to help put her achievement in perspective. Not that it needs perspective. This is one of the most focused novels I’ve ever met.

This novel will live for a long time. Maybe not forever. Very few things last forever. If I had to make a bet about lasting value, though, I’d bet that Tuck Everlasting will continue to intrigue readers young and old -- not only as long as readers are opening it for the first time, but as often as readers pick it up to reread.

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BEFORE YOU GO

  • Anne Sexton (Sylvia Plath)
    <strong>Anne Sexton</strong> and <strong>Sylvia Plath</strong> -- both "confessional" poets -- met in Boston in 1958 as membe
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    Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath -- both "confessional" poets -- met in Boston in 1958 as members of Robert Lowell’s poetry class and instantly became friends. Sexton encouraged Plath to write from her experiences and from a more feminine perspective. Their first collections, both published in 1960, were critically acclaimed. Plath’s, however, was to be the only book of poems published in her lifetime. In September 1962, she separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and wrote at least 26 poems in a fierce burst of creativity. Five months later she put her head in a gas oven. Hughes’s publication of her final poems in Ariel (1965) precipitated the rise to fame that would eventually overshadow Sexton. Both women were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Plath posthumously. But though Sexton’s poems are still read and appreciated, Plath’s contentious relationship with Hughes and her dramatic death made her a phenomenon. Sexton said of Plath “We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric light bulb, sucking on it.” After several more collections, which critics met with increasing indifference, Sexton, too, committed suicide.
  • Ezra Pound (T.S. Eliot)
    By 1914, expatriate American poet <strong>Ezra Pound</strong> was a prominent fixture in the burgeoning Modernist movement. P
    Hulton Archive via Getty Images
    By 1914, expatriate American poet Ezra Pound was a prominent fixture in the burgeoning Modernist movement. Pound advanced the careers of many contemporaries, including James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway, but perhaps none more than T.S. Eliot. He ensured the publication of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and was so influential in shaping Eliot's masterpiece, The Wasteland, that Eliot dedicated it to him, calling Pound "the better craftsman." Pound's downfall was anti-Semitism--disillusioned by Britain's role in World War One, he moved to Italy, embracing Mussolini, supporting Hitler, and criticizing the United States. In 1945, he was arrested for treason but escaped a life sentence when he was declared insane, subsequently spending 12 years in a psychiatric hospital. Three years after Pound's arrest, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. These days Eliot, not Pound, is regarded as the figurehead of Modernist poetry. At the end of his life, Pound admitted, "My worst mistake was the stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice, all along that spoiled everything."
  • Louis MacNeice (W. H. Auden)
    Both born in 1907, <strong>Louis MacNeice</strong> and <strong>W. H. Auden</strong> met at Oxford University in 1926. In 1937
    Kurt Hutton via Getty Images
    Both born in 1907, Louis MacNeice and W. H. Auden met at Oxford University in 1926. In 1937, they published a joint book, Letters From Iceland, based on their travels there the previous year. Both men, though chiefly remembered as poets, wrote in several different genres and styles: MacNeice wrote a large number of plays for BBC radio, Auden was a prolific reviewer and essayist. By the 1950s, though, MacNeice’s heavy drinking began to affect his work; his later collections were poorly received. He died of pneumonia in 1963, followed by Auden 10 years later. Auden garnered far higher recognition thanks to a handful of works, most significantly “Funeral Blues.” Written originally as a satirical eulogy for a politician in the anti-capitalist play The Ascent of F6, the poem catapulted him into the realm of the Literary Greats when it was read in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. A pamphlet of 10 Auden poems subsequently sold more than 275,000 copies. Auden and MacNeice’s centenary year, 2007, was marked by broadcast tributes and public readings for Auden -- but not MacNeice.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge (William Wordsworth)
    In 1798,<strong> Samuel Taylor Coleridge</strong> and <strong>William Wordsworth</strong> launched the English Romantic Movem
    In 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth launched the English Romantic Movement when they published their joint poetry volume, Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth contributed more poems, but Coleridge’s "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" drew the most praise and attention. Unfortunately, Coleridge was emotionally unstable and unhappily married. He took to self-medicating with laudanum. Within 10 years of Lyrical Ballads’ publication, his opium addiction was out of hand. He separated from his wife in 1808, fell out with Wordsworth in 1810, lost part of his annuity in 1811. Finally, Coleridge put himself under the care of a doctor and remained creatively unproductive for the rest of his life. Coleridge is still remembered for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Kubla Khan," and a handful of other poems, but Wordsworth built the lasting reputation. Appointed Poet Laureate nine years after Coleridge’s death, Wordsworth’s long poem to his dead friend, "The Prelude," is now hailed as a masterpiece.
  • Gore Vidal (Truman Capote)
    <strong>Gore Vidal</strong> and <strong>Truman Capote</strong> were born a year apart. Vidal’s third novel,<em> The City and
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Gore Vidal and Truman Capote were born a year apart. Vidal’s third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), coincided with Capote’s debut Other Voices, Other Rooms. The City and the Pillar sparked a public scandal as the first novel to depict an openly gay protagonist as masculine and homosexuality as natural. Vidal claimed that as a result, The New York Times refused to review his next five books. Capote’s 1948 debut, also featuring a gay (albeit more effeminate) protagonist, became an instant hit, spending nine weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. So began a lifelong rivalry between the two, leading Tennessee Williams to observe: “You would think they were running neck-and-neck for some fabulous gold prize.” Vidal’s essays, novels, plays and screenplays never matched the level of recognition Capote achieved with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Addiction to drink and drugs eventually silenced Capote’s writing talent. Though he maintained his celebrity through talk show appearances, he never finished another book, and died of liver cancer in 1984. Vidal lived for another 28 productive years without achieving the literary recognition of his rival.
  • Ford Madox Ford (Joseph Conrad)
    <strong>Ford Madox Ford</strong> published his first novel in 1892 when he was just 20. Three years later, 38-year-old <stron
    E. O. Hoppe via Getty Images
    Ford Madox Ford published his first novel in 1892 when he was just 20. Three years later, 38-year-old Joseph Conrad published his debut. Conrad went on to publish four more novels by 1900, including Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, while Ford would publish more than two dozen books before achieving critical success with The Good Soldier (1915). He was constantly outgunned by his friend despite the fact English was Conrad’s third language. "I helped Joseph Conrad, I helped Hemingway,” Ford told George Seldes. “I helped a dozen, a score of writers, and many of them have beaten me. I'm now an old man and I'll die without making a name like Hemingway." Seldes observed, "At this climax Ford began to sob. Then he began to cry."
  • Dorothy Richardson (Virginia Woolf)
    In 1915, Gerald Duckworth, Woolf’s step-brother, published the first novels of both <strong>Dorothy Richardson</strong> and <
    In 1915, Gerald Duckworth, Woolf’s step-brother, published the first novels of both Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf. Richardson’s debut, Pointed Roofs, was the first stream-of-consciousness novel in English, ahead of both Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Richardson bent the rules of punctuation and sentence length to create what has been called a “feminine prose.” Paying tribute to Richardson’s influence, Woolf said, “She has invented a sentence we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender." But whereas Woolf’s novels entered both the popular and critical canon and are still read today, those of Dorothy Richardson languish in obscurity. The reason? One critic claims that Richardson might have been “the Gertrude Stein of the English novel if she had been more self-promoting and more affluent." Born into wealth, Woolf was at the center of the influential Bloomsbury group and ran her own publishing house. By contrast, Richardson left London to live in Cornwall early in her career. Without literary friends to champion her long unstructured style and difficult prose, she now has few fans outside academia.
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