Dicey's Song Summary
Thirteen-year-old Dicey Tillerman knows something about responsibility. Her father disappeared when she was only seven, leaving her fragile mother overwhelmed by the daunting task of providing for four young children on her own. Their tiny, ramshackle house on the dunes in Provincetown, Massachusetts had been filled with love, but not much else, and the challenges had finally grown to be too much for Liza Tillerman. Early this past summer, she had abandoned her family at a Connecticut shopping mall, and now lies in a catatonic state in a Boston hospital, lost to the children, "maybe forever."
It was Dicey who had brought her siblings—serious and cerebral ten-year-old James, quiet nine-year-old Maybeth, and tempestuous, almost-seven-year-old Sammy—on a journey of hundreds of miles that finally ended at a dilapidated farmhouse near Crisfield, Maryland. The Tillerman children have finally found a home with their feisty, no-nonsense grandmother Abigail Tillerman, whose character has notoriously "sharp corners and unexpected turns." The farmhouse is commodious, but it will be no small task to keep everyone fed and clothed; fortunately, the young Tillermans are used to chipping in and working hard. In addition, the children and their grandmother will need to get to know each other, to learn to become a family. In these first days, Dicey and Gram especially have been treading softly, tempering their mutually outspoken natures to establish an atmosphere of cooperation, sensitivity, and acceptance.
Dicey secures a job at her first opportunity, convincing Millie Tydings, the hapless owner of the local grocery store, into hiring her. With the money she will earn, Dicey decides that each of the Tillerman children will have an allowance of a dollar a week, with the remaining money going to Gram. The children are ecstatic when Dicey announces her plan, but Gram pointedly says, "I always thought, if you were a family, you talked over your plans first...just to check in." Uncannily perceptive, Maybeth immediately senses Dicey's anger at her grandmother's reaction, and interjects softly, "I'm proud of Dicey." Gram concurs and says that she has something she'd like to talk about...
(The entire section is 899 words.)
Dicey sits, detached and alone, in the back of her English classroom as the teacher, a pale, red-haired gentleman named Mr. Chappelle, begins a discussion on the topic of "conflict." Bored by the shallow contributions of her classmates, which include such literal offerings as "conflict between two men...a man and a woman...a girl and a girl...," she idly observes the students—and the racial and economic divisions among them. There is only one other person in the room who, in her opinion, gives interesting, thought-provoking answers. The other person is a lively, mature-looking black girl named Wilhemina, who sits in the front row diagonally across the room.
As inane examples of conflict continue to be added to the list the teacher writes on the board, Dicey thinks up ideas of her own in her head. She muses that there could be conflict "between someone with power and someone without any...[or] between someone honest and a liar." Wilhemina raises her hand and suggests "conflict between an individual and the society he lives in." Dicey awakens from her reverie as the girl cites examples which include Jesus, the suffragettes, and the people who ran the underground railroad. Mr. Chappelle calls on Dicey next, even though she has not raised her hand. Resentful at the intrusion, Dicey offers instances of conflict "between someone and himself...want[ing] one thing and the opposite at the same time," saying one thing "when you really mean the opposite," or having "something you want to do and something you have to do."
When school is finally over, Dicey rushes out to her bike. A boy who appears to be few years older is playing a guitar on the concrete wall next to the bike rack. Dicey stops to listen as he sings a song about a stranger, a girl, and a "coat of many colors." When he has finished, the boy, who has a thin face and wide gray eyes, invites Dicey to sit awhile as he begins another song, but Dicey shakes her head, gets on her bike, and rides off to work. After washing shelves at Millie Tydings' store for exactly an hour, she returns home to find James reading as usual, Maybeth practicing a list of vocabulary words with Gram, and Sammy...
(The entire section is 890 words.)
Gram receives a letter from the hospital in Boston where the children's mother lies in a catatonic state. The correspondence is three pages long, but Gram tells Dicey only that there is "no change." When Dicey presses her for more information, Gram angrily retorts that she does not want her to "[make] the mistake of thinking life isn't going to be hard." Dicey snaps back that she already knows that, and Gram responds grimly, "I guess you do...I'm a natural fool...I keep trying to count on things."
It is October, and the children are settling into their new lives. Sammy is not fighting at school as he always has before, and James is writing an excellent report about why the Pilgrims came to America. Maybeth is invited to a birthday party, and Gram makes one of her own old blouses into a dress for her to wear. Dicey runs into Jeff, the boy with the guitar, at the bike rack at school fairly regularly, and sometimes sings with him while he experiments with harmonies.
Dicey continues her work at the store, as Millie Tydings seems to appreciate the help. One day, she finds the owner agonizing over a purchase sheet: Millie has mistakenly ordered corn flakes instead of corn chips. The flustered woman confides that she had never learned to read properly, because all the words look alike to her. When Dicey offers to do the ordering, Millie is clearly relieved to have someone else take over.
Dicey thinks about Millie and Maybeth, who continues to struggle with her schoolwork. She feels sorry for Millie, and wants "something better" for her sister's life. Interestingly, despite her difficulties with academics, Maybeth finds it easy to read music notes onto the piano keys. She is excelling with her piano lessons, and is already playing "real pieces, with chords."
In Dicey's English class, the students are asked to write a character sketch about a real person and the conflicts that person has faced. Intrigued, Dicey decides to write about her mother. After class, Mina asks to discuss the assignment with her, but Dicey declines, without being sure exactly why. Rebuffed, Mina is at first angry, but then good-naturedly...
(The entire section is 887 words.)
At the end of October, Gram meets with the children's teachers. Afterwards, she announces that she and Dicey will be going to the mall in Salisbury on Saturday, to shop and to talk about what was said at the conferences. Mr. Lingerle will come by to watch the younger children, and when Gram and Dicey return, the whole family will discuss what the teachers have said. Gram tells everyone that there were "good things and bad things" communicated during the meetings, but "nothing that made me regret you living here with me."
Gram is silent on the long bus ride into the city, and she is all business when she and Dicey arrive. At the mall, she goes directly to a little store that sells yarn, and buys enough to make...
(The entire section is 876 words.)
That evening, Gram tells James about the problems Maybeth is having in school. Maybeth's teacher is "one of those people who think that if you just work hard enough, everything will go your way." Everyone knows, however, just how hard Maybeth works, and that is why her teacher is mystified about why she still shows so little progress, especially in reading. The school system in Crisfield uses a whole word recognition approach in reading instruction; but for some reason, Maybeth cannot seem to remember the words that she sees on a page quickly enough to make sense from them, no matter how much she practices them. James suggests that it might be better if his sister learned to read by sounding out the words, and he promises to...
(The entire section is 890 words.)
The third week in November begins inauspiciously, with the weather turning so bitterly cold that Dicey cannot continue work on her boat. Then on Wednesday, she receives her report card, and is not pleased with her grades in home economics and English. Miss Eversleigh has given her an "F" in home economics, which Dicey does not feel is fair. Although she acknowledges that she did not complete her assignments well, she did complete them, and she has never caused any problems in class. In English, a subject in which she did try for the most part, Dicey is surprised to see that she has received a "C+." She knows that she did an outstanding job on her essay assignment; concluding that the grade has to be a mistake,...
(The entire section is 768 words.)
In English on Monday, Mr. Chappelle waits until the last fifteen minutes of class to pass back the students' essays. Dicey struggles to contain her impatience; she is anxious to see her grade, because she knows that she did a good job and is certain that the teacher gave her the low mark on her report card by mistake. Mr. Chappelle finally begins the process of returning the assignments by announcing that he would like to read two of them aloud first. He does not specify why he has chosen these papers, other than to say that both were written by girls.
The first essay describes someone who is "the laughingest person you're liable to meet," but who is often found "crying when she thinks nobody's there to...
(The entire section is 906 words.)
In the days following her talk with Gram, Dicey makes a conscious effort to continue to "reach out" to the people around her, starting with Mina and Jeff. Mina walks with her over to Millie Tydings' store after school, and Dicey admits that her infamous essay had been about Momma, who is in the hospital and is not expected to "ever get better." Dicey tells Mina that Gram is going to adopt her and her siblings, and Mina says that although she has never met her grandmother, she has heard about her. Knowing that Gram has the reputation of being eccentric, Dicey thoughtfully comments that what Mina has heard about her "probably isn't true."
Sammy gets into another fight, but aside from admitting that the conflict had...
(The entire section is 838 words.)
Sammy is bubbling over with excitement when Dicey meets him after school the next Monday. Gram had shown up at school during recess with a big bag of marbles "that must have belonged to one of her sons." She had given the bag to Sammy, then stayed to play. Gram had beaten everyone, and when she was done, she gave back the marbles she had won. The students were all impressed, and although Ernie had joked that he was glad he did not have "a crazy grandmother," Custer, a nice boy who has lots of friends, had said that "he wished he had a grandmother like that."
Miss Eversleigh, the home economics teacher, comes into the store while Dicey is at work. Dicey grins at her, and Miss Eversleigh remarks, "I didn't know you...
(The entire section is 873 words.)
As she looks at the frail figure lying so absolutely still under the sheets, Dicey knows that her mother is dying. She looks over at her grandmother and notices that tears are streaming from her eyes; it is not like Gram to cry. Dicey and Gram sit on either side of Momma on chairs which have been kindly brought in by Preston, the floor nurse. Gram takes one of Momma's limp hands in her own, and in the saddest voice Dicey has ever heard, says softly, "Oh Liza."
Gram begins to talk then, assuring her daughter that she will take care of the children, "Dicey and James, Maybeth and Sammy." She goes on to talk about each child in turn and laments, "I wish you had come with them...I wish you had come home years ago." Momma's...
(The entire section is 887 words.)
Gram tells the doctor and Preston that she and Dicey would like to take Momma back to Maryland. The doctor is skeptical; "charity cases" like Momma are ordinarily "given over to medical research," and, under the circumstances, he expresses doubt that the Tillermans will be able to cover the expense of an undertaker, coffin, and transportation. Tactfully, Preston suggests that they might want to have Momma cremated, and carry the ashes home with them. She recommends an undertaker, and arranges for him to come pick up Momma's body.
The undertaker informs Gram that the minimum charge for his services is three hundred and fifty dollars, plus the price of an urn. He has a good selection of these at his establishment,...
(The entire section is 899 words.)
The family buries Momma under the old paper mulberry tree at the front of the house. As James and Sammy take turns digging a hole in the dark, soft earth, no one says anything, and Dicey can hear the wind blowing in the branches. The paper mulberry has four main trunks which are held together by thick wires. Gram says that if the wires weren't there, the tree would split, "broken apart by the weight of its own growth." Gram thinks the tree "is like families."
When James finally puts the shovel down, Gram takes the wooden box containing Momma's ashes and kneels to place it gently in the hole. Dicey wonders for a moment if they should sing or say something, but Gram just picks up a handful of dirt and drops it back over...
(The entire section is 685 words.)