In Sons From Afar, the sixth book in the seven-volume Tillerman saga, author Cynthia Voigt focuses on the young men in the family. Dicey, the oldest of the four Tillerman children, is away at college, while middle sister Maybeth, always shy and slow to learn in school, has blossomed into a fine musical talent and the heart of their grandmother's simple but welcoming home. James, now fifteen and a sophomore in high school, is a deep thinker, and as he grapples with questions about his own burgeoning identity, he becomes obsessed with an idea: he believes that finding out about the man who fathered all the Tillerman children, but otherwise played no role in their lives, might help him understand why he has the unique characteristics that make up his personality. James's younger brother, twelve-year-old Sammy, who is less introspective and much more matter-of-fact in his approach to life, at first does not see why James feels the need to learn about their father; the only emotion Sammy feels toward the man he never knew is anger—anger for abandoning them.
The Tillerman brothers have always supported each other, so Sammy goes along with James in his search for information and soon becomes as interested as his older sibling in their quest. Through facts gleaned from their birth certificates, the two boys discover that their father's name is Francis Verricker, and that he was born in nearby Cambridge, Maryland. Traveling there, the brothers manage to speak to teachers at the local schools who remember "Frankie" as intelligent and "a natural leader," but prone to trouble from his earliest years. After being expelled from school for being a liar, a gambler, and a thief, Francis Verricker had joined the Merchant Marines; following this lead, James and Sammy go to the union headquarters in Baltimore. The boys are subsequently directed to a bar in the dangerous and seedy waterfront area, where they learn that their father, who has not been seen in almost three years, has a reputation for "running out on his debts," and for being a womanizer who would "take a woman for all she'd give him, and then leave her." Chief, a burly, angry man who has been duped by Verricker, is the person who gives the boys this information, and he is unrelenting in his denigration of the man, which provokes Sammy into imprudently revealing that he and James are Verricker's sons. Chief, who is murderously drunk, tries to extract the debt he is owed by Verricker from his children; a melee ensues, and Sammy and James are lucky to escape with their lives.
James and Sammy never do find their father, but knowing the truth about him brings a sense of closure, and they are able to move on, focusing their concern on each other instead of on the man whom they will most likely never meet. Francis Verricker had never even seen his youngest son by Liza Tillerman; knowing that, Sammy feels his situation is a little like "being lost without a map," but he remains undaunted, looking upon life as an adventure rather than as something of which to be afraid. James, on his part, sees his father as someone who, for whatever reason, had gotten "lost from himself along the way," and despite the realization that he will probably never learn his patriarch's full story, James is now secure in knowing that his life is his own, and that he alone is responsible for ensuring that he does not make the same mistakes.
Published in 1987, Sons From Afar evinces the same sensitive and perceptive character portrayals and setting descriptions that typify the author's other works. The novel, like Homecoming, the first volume in the series, recounts a journey in the physical sense, as the boys travel around the environs of Maryland's eastern shore in their quest to find their father. The theme of journeying is also explored metaphorically, as the boys continue in their development toward self-realization and maturity. Although the author provides enough background on the characters and their situations so that the novel can be read alone, readers will be drawn to read the other volumes in the Tillerman saga once they become familiar with the engaging protagonists of Sons From Afar, James and Sammy Tillerman.