This novel is the second of six novels that deal with the Tillerman children, Dicey, James, Maybeth, and Sammy. A sequel to Homecoming—the story of the Tillerman children's journey from a shopping center parking lot, where their emotionally distraught mother left them, to their grandmother's home— Dicey's Song tells of their adjustment to a new life with this grandmother, whom they have just met.
The story focuses on thirteen-year-old Dicey's struggle to find love, acceptance, and security. Although she is just entering adolescence, Dicey has already experienced the breakdown of her mother and has taken on the subsequent responsibility for her younger siblings. As she learns to lower her emotional defenses and relinquish some of her responsibility for her brothers and sister, she allows herself to explore fuller relationships with her grandmother, her siblings, and her new friends. Dicey's new experiences along the way include shopping for a bra, having a boyfriend, and entertaining friends at home. Voigt presents a moving story about a sensitive young girl who recognizes within herself the need to grow and make a life of her own.
(The entire section is 183 words.)
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Chapter 1 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 too. Much as she does not like the idea, she is going to have to apply for "welfare money," and is looking into the process of adoption, if that is what the children ultimately want. Sammy, who does not yet understand the seriousness of their mother's...
(The entire section is 899 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
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 working in the garden. Delighted to have a little time to do what she wants, Dicey goes to the barn to continue her project of scraping the paint off of the old sailboat. When Sammy comes in, interrupting her work, she at first hollers at him in frustration, but then relents. Out...
(The entire section is 890 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
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 observes, "You sure are a hard person to be friends with, Dicey Tillerman."
One day, when Dicey returns home, she finds a corpulent gentleman playing a beautiful melody on the piano. When he is finished, the man introduces himself as Isaac Lingerle, Maybeth's music...
(The entire section is 887 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
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 sweaters for everyone: yellow for Maybeth, blue for Sammy, brown for James, and a pretty blue-green for Dicey. She then leads the way to Sears and Roebuck, where she picks out two pairs of blue jeans apiece for each of the Tillermans, and long-sleeved shirts for the "little kids." In the midst of shopping, Gram mentions that Maybeth is not progressing in school, and that her teacher has recommended a home tutor. Dicey tells Gram that Millie can't read, "not like she should," and Gram, understanding her unspoken question, observes that "Maybeth's not like Millie."
Sammy's teacher reports that the little boy's behavior has been impeccable: he sits "quiet as a mouse, all day." Gram and Dicey are worried, because they know that Sammy is not really like that. James' teacher says that James is "unusually intelligent," but that his work is not as exceptional now as it was at the beginning of the year. The teacher had shown Gram James' report, and Gram had been a little disturbed to note that the report was not the same one he had shown his family.
Gram takes Dicey to a real restaurant for lunch, and makes her order a club sandwich, something they would not get at home, despite her protestations about the cost. While they are eating, Gram asks Dicey what she thinks about the children's situations, saying, "You've had weeks and weeks without worrying...now, you've got to help out." A little resentfully, Dicey wonders how long she is going to have to worry about her siblings, and Gram, again reading her thoughts, says:
It's for as long as you live...that's something I learned, even though I didn't want to...for as long as you live, the attachments hold....
(The entire section is 876 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
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 research the subject to see how to go about teaching Maybeth using this approach.
On Sunday, Dicey has the whole afternoon to work on her boat. She is a little annoyed when Sammy intrudes upon her solitude, and hollers at him when he accidentally causes her to dig her scraper into the wood of the vessel. When Sammy stands in the sunlight, facing her defiantly, however, she remembers how he had always been her responsibility, even when he was a baby, and recalls how doggedly he had kept up with the rest of them all that past summer on their long trek to Crisfield. Dicey's heart softens, and she shows her little brother how he can help by sanding the areas she has already scraped.
As they work together companionably, Sammy tells Dicey that he likes being "good" at school because it pleases Gram, and that he sometimes wishes that he had been better when Momma had been with them. Alarmed, Dicey assures Sammy that what happened with Momma is not his fault. Dicey goes on to say that she understands the feelings that so often in the past have caused him to explode in anger, because she used to get into fights at school herself. Sammy is shocked to hear this, but seems to get the message that he does not need to repress his natural tendencies completely because he fears that those closest to him will stop loving him.
Dicey wears her new jumper to school, but no one notices, "but then nobody noticed her much anyway." Mina, who is with a group of her friends, greets Dicey in a friendly way as they are leaving English class, but Dicey responds cursorily and hurries on to their next period, home economics. Seated alone in the back of the room, she almost groans aloud when Miss Eversleigh, the...
(The entire section is 890 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
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, she resolves to ask Mr. Chappelle about it when their papers are handed back on Monday.
While Dicey is at work that day, Jeff comes into the store. Millie thinks he is "kinda cute" and asks if he is her "fellow," but Dicey says he is just someone she knows from school. Seeing the two young people causes Millie to reminisce about when she and Gram were in school. Curious, Dicey asks Millie what her grandmother, Abigail, was like back then.
Millie remembers that "Ab," as she calls Gram affectionately, "had quite a tongue" and would "as soon bite your head off as smile at you." She made everyone laugh with her straightforward manner and high spirit, but when she married John Tillerman, no one saw much of her anymore; she "wasn't the same." Dicey gets the impression that Gram had somehow been stifled by her marriage, but, as Millie says, "Ab always did make her mind up quick and stick to it." Millie thinks that Ab is "more like her old self these days" and calls it a blessing that Dicey and her siblings have come into her life.
Gram has left a message with Millie telling Dicey to wait for Sammy at the store. The little boy has been in detention, so Dicey gives him a ride home on her bike. Sammy says that a bigger, older boy named Ernie had made a bet with him, and when Sammy had lost, as Ernie had known he would, he had had to kiss one of the girls as a consequence, causing quite a ruckus in class. Dicey does not like the sound of this boy Ernie, and asks Sammy if there are any other classmates that he might be friends with. Sammy responds that there is one kid, Custer, but that he already has "lots of best friends."
At home, James works with Maybeth on a "silly little...
(The entire section is 768 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
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 see." When this girl is talking to people, she is "always interested in the other person...but inside, she's always thinking about herself, patting herself on the back for being...caring." This girl always appears to be confident, but inside, she is full of questions, about herself, the future, and the world around her. By this time, Dicey knows that the writer has to be Mina, and thinks that the subject of the paper must be someone Mina knows pretty well. Mr. Chappelle continues on, and the whole class bursts into appreciative laughter and praise when he gets to the last line, which reads, "I guess by now, you know...it's me, Wilhemina Smiths."
When Mina had accepted her paper and the class has quieted down, Mr. Chappelle picks up a second essay, which he calls "a horse of another color." This assignment describes a woman named Miss Liza, who has "long hair...the color of evening sunlight in the summer, and walks "like a song sung without accompaniment." Miss Liza has children, but the man who was their father had left her long ago; she works hard at whatever jobs she can find to support her family alone. Things finally get too hard for Miss Liza, and when "nothing she did seemed to make any difference...she went away to the farthest place she could find," a place where they cut her hair and she lay on white sheets with her eyes staring at something "so far away and small that if she looked off for a second, it would be gone."
The paper, of course, is Dicey's, written about her mother. The class is silent when Mr. Chappelle is finished reading, until Mina acknowledges laughingly that the essay is better than hers by far. The teacher...
(The entire section is 906 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
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 been against "Ernie and some of his friends" again, he refuses to tell his family what the fight had been about. The students in his class are interested in marbles, and Sammy is determined to become a better player. Gram, who says, "I was pretty good when I was a girl...not even the boys could beat me," agrees to teach him "everything she knows," and Sammy promises to try harder not to fight.
On the day before Thanksgiving, Jeff comes into the store while Dicey is working. As he makes his purchases, she studies him carefully, "seeing him clearly for what felt like the first time." Jeff lingers awkwardly when he is done, then summons up the courage to ask Dicey if she would like a ride home. Jeff is allowed to use father's car when he is doing the shopping, and when he agrees to take Sammy too, Dicey, "reaching out again," accepts his offer. When Jeff drops them off, he reminds Dicey that he would still like to meet "[her] sister who sings."
The Tillerman children have never celebrated Thanksgiving, but this year, Gram cooks a turkey, and invites Mr. Lingerle to share in the family feast. Everyone helps with the preparations, and, after enjoying the sumptuous dinner, all agree that their efforts in undertaking the preparations were well worth it. In the quiet moments after the meal is done, Dicey is stricken with a sudden longing for Momma to be with them, "to complete the picture." She reflects, "That was the trouble with being happy, it made you remember other things.
Mr. Lingerle spends the whole day with the Tillermans, and later in the afternoon, everyone puts on warm clothes and walks down to the Bay. Ernie, who apparently is not having a family dinner at home, calls...
(The entire section is 838 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
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 could smile." Dicey remembers the lecture the teacher had given last week after giving her nutrition assignment an "F." Dicey had not been listening, but now has the feeling that she should have paid attention. She asks Miss Eversleigh about what she had said, and the woman reiterates her assertion that the things presented in class are important to learn, because they take skill, "as much skill as building something." On the way home, Dicey thinks about all the things Gram knows how to do, and how important those things have been to the Tillermans. She muses that perhaps she ought to try to learn what Miss Eversleigh has to teach, because:
"if you learned something, that didn't mean you had to do it...all it meant was, if you had to...then you could."
There is homemade apple pie with ice cream for dessert that evening, and the children know that there must be a special reason for it. In answer to Dicey's question, Gram mischievously says that she did some washing and baking that day, then played "a game or two of marbles - and won." She then nonchalantly adds that she has spoken with the lawyers, to confirm that their adoption is final. Gram assures the children that she thinks this is "good news."
To Dicey's surprise, Gram also mentions that she called on Mina's family, "to put a face on the bogeyman." Gram knows that she has a reputation for being odd and reclusive, and she is reaching out, for Dicey's sake. Later, Mina tells Dicey that her mother recognizes Ab Tillerman as "a lady, no question," a compliment reserved for the few white women "who [don't] ask if she does daily cleaning." Dicey gets a sense then, about the...
(The entire section is 873 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
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 face shows no expression, and as Dicey watches, remembering her mother's voice singing, and how she loved them all, she feels as if she is being broken into pieces. Dicey wonders if Momma had known "that she was worked out...and had felt herself crumbling," and if she had gotten her children started on the road to Bridgeport in an attempt to get them to a safe place before she "crumbled away" altogether.
Gram continues to talk to the still, silent figure on the bed, telling her about her husband and other children, Momma's father and brothers. She tells Momma that her father died of a heart attack, and that her brother Bullet was killed in Vietnam. Her older brother John took a job in California, and never returned. Gram had received a wedding announcement from him years ago, but for reasons unexplained, had not acknowledged it.
The doctor arrives and calls Gram out into the hall to talk. Left alone with Momma, Dicey takes one of her mother's hands and talks to her like Gram did. Talking is Dicey's way of "reaching out," even though she knows that the woman on the bed cannot be called back.
When Gram returns, she tells Dicey what she already knows: Momma is dying and there is nothing anyone can do but wait. The older woman gives Dicey five twenty dollar bills and tells her to go out and buy Christmas gifts for her brothers and sister. Feeling bitter and angry without knowing exactly why, Dicey bursts out of the hospital into the freezing cold. She does not understand why she should be so upset about something that she had known would inevitably happen; she does not believe that Momma "had meant to go away like this...but just the same, she had."
After wandering down...
(The entire section is 887 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
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, but Gram and Dicey do not see anything that is right for Momma. Overwhelmed, Gram turns to her granddaughter for help, and Dicey has an idea. She takes Gram back to the store at which she had gotten James' wooden chess set, and shows her boxes
made from many different kinds of wood...[with] warm brown tones...careful workmanship...[and] patient sanding smooth.
The man at the wood store remembers Dicey and greets Gram "as if he recognizes her too." When Dicey tells him that they are looking for a small box, he understands the situation immediately and says simply, "I'm sorry to hear that." When Gram and Dicey choose the box that they want, he tells them that there will be no charge. He insists that he had wanted to give Dicey something yesterday, because he had been so honored at the way she had recognized the value of his work.
After delivering the box to the undertaker, Gram and Dicey return to the motel to pack. They talk about the gifts Dicey has purchased and Gram asks for the change, which comes to more than forty dollars. After she puts the money in her wallet, Gram glances at Dicey with a frightened look on her face. In planning for the trip, she had not taken into account the fact that they might have to pay an undertaker, and she berates herself for having been so foolish.
As Dicey tries to calculate how much they might get if she were to return the presents, Gram rummages in her purse desperately, and finds the envelope Mr. Lingerle had given her. The envelope contains five hundred dollars, and Gram wonders gratefully, "How did he know?" Before leaving the motel, they call the house in Crisfield. Gram speaks to Mr....
(The entire section is 899 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
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 box. James does the same, followed by Sammy, Maybeth, and finally Dicey. Maybeth then takes the shovel to refill the hole, and Dicey finishes the process, patting the dirt down at the end and scattering faded mulberry leaves on top of the bare space, like flowers.
As the sun sets, James comments wistfully, "She's really gone now." Gram thoughtfully responds, "You might say that. Or...you might say she's come home now. Maybe it's both." As James takes the shovel to put it away, Sammy says simply, "I still love her."
Dicey stands alone by the grave site after the others have all gone back to the house. Inside her head, she hears the words, "Gone and home;" these are "all the words to speak over Momma, all the songs to sing." It does not seem possible that both these words can be true at the same time, but they are. Dicey shivers a little in the wind, then follows the others back inside.
The sound of music draws Dicey over to the living room. There, she finds James and Sammy building a fire, and Maybeth playing the piano. Gram has gone upstairs and Sammy says he hears her pulling down the stairs to the attic. When she comes back into the room, Gram is carrying a pile of thick leather photo albums, which she thinks the children might be interested in examining.
Gram says that while the children are looking at the pictures, she will fix dinner, but James protests that Mr. Lingerle has promised to come by in a little while with pizza. The Tillermans have never had pizza, and Mr. Lingerle, amazed, is planning on rectifying that situation. Gram, who has not tasted pizza either, laughs and decides that they will look at the pictures together while they wait.
(The entire section is 685 words.)