Tuck Everlasting is set in the year 1881. Babbitt never specifies a location but has stated elsewhere that what she had in mind was a cross between the heavily-wooded Ohio frontier which her ancestors had helped to tame in an earlier century and the Adirondack foothills of New York where she was living at the time she wrote the book. Winnie Foster lives in a proper, middle-class house with a fenced-in yard on the edge of the town of Treegap. Her family supposedly owns the nearby Treegap wood, but nobody really owns the wood. It is an ancient, mysterious place, something, Babbitt hints, which has been left over from a previous creation. At its center, protected by magic, lies the fountain of eternal life, a tiny, nondescript spout of water at the base of an ancient ash tree.
Babbitt places the fussy propriety of Winnie's home and yard in contrast with the untamed luxuriousness of nature, and, ironically, with the moldering and messy chaos of the Tuck's shack. When Winnie must choose between a return to her family and staying with the Tucks, the setting provides a visual symbol for her choice. Her old life was as limiting as the fence which kept her at home. Life with the Tucks, although seemingly offering an infinity of new choices, might in the end be just as limiting and considerably more chaotic.
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The first thing that strikes most critics about Babbitt's work is its difference from other modern children's fiction. In the 1960s and 1970s, while an increasing number of writers for children and adolescents were producing work aligned with the new realism, dealing more or less explicitly with the social and political issues of the day, Babbitt was writing a series of books like Tuck Everlasting. These gentle, oddly philosophical novels, written in an understated and slightly old-fashioned prose style, are, for the most part, set in a somewhat fantastic, almost invariably pastoral pre-twentieth century world. Babbitt's fiction, however, also fails to fit comfortably into that other popular genre for young people: high fantasy. Although connections can be made between Tuck Everlasting and, for example, the work of Lloyd Alexander, Alan Garner, or Ursula K. Le Guin, Tuck lacks the actively heroic note, the call to arms, the violent action, and the larger than life accomplishments, that are prerequisites to the descendants of Tolkien.
To say that Babbitt's fiction lacks the somewhat exaggerated violence often associated both with new realism and high fantasy, however, is not to say that it is toothless. Babbitt's novels often center around one violent act, the death of a loved one in a carriage accident or shipwreck, or, in the case of Tuck Everlasting, the killing of an evil man. Babbitt then proceeds to examine the effect of...
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Tuck Everlasting is a popular book with librarians and junior high school teachers, in part because Babbitt has set up for Winnie a series of important, clearly depicted moral dilemmas which younger adolescents are likely to find of great interest. The book has, however, occasionally been criticized by adult readers who disapprove of Winnie's choices. First there is her decision to lie and deny that she was kidnapped by the Tucks. Then there is her need to come to terms with Mae Tuck's killing of the stranger. The crime was in some sense necessary. The stranger, after all, wanted to bottle and sell the water from the fountain at a very high price and tried to force Winnie to drink from it against her will. The implication is that he would then set her up in a sort of freak show. He also threatened to expose the Tucks. After Mae is arrested for murder, Winnie must decide to disobey her parents and help free her from prison. Finally, and most importantly, she must decide whether or not to take the Tucks up on their offer of eternal life.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why did the Tucks keep their immortality a secret? Was it merely to protect themselves or did they have a deeper, less selfish motive?
2. Were the Tucks right to want to keep the secret of immortality from the world? Would other, better educated and more resourceful people have been able to deal with eternal life more successfully? In their position, would you have gone public with the discovery?
3. Winnie lies about the Tucks kidnapping her and then she herself breaks the law when she helps Mae Tuck escape from prison. Is she wrong to do these things? Is it ever morally correct to break the law?
4. If you were given a chance at eternal life, would you take it? If you would, what would be the best age to do so? Twelve? Seventeen? Twenty four? Remember that once you've drunk from the fountain you'll stop aging; you'll be twelve, seventeen, or twenty four forever.
5. Is the stranger an entirely evil man? Are his motives entirely bad?
6. Why does Winnie decide not to drink the water?
7. Babbitt doesn't show us Winnie's decision to remain mortal; we only find out about it in the epilogue, some seven decades later. Why did Babbitt choose to tell us of Winnie's decision in this way?
8. At the end of the book Babbitt has the ash tree which marked the fountain destroyed by lightning and then the entire area bulldozed, presumably destroying the fountain. Why does this occur? Do you think it...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Throughout Tuck Everlasting are references to the "wheel of life," a concept used since ancient times to explain everything from the change of the seasons to the change of human fortunes. Research the various ways in which the concept has been used in the past and compare them to Babbitt's usage.
2. Throughout the novel Babbitt sets up a contrast between the restricted world of Winnie's fenced-in home and the freedom of the outside world. Part of Winnie's moral dilemma involves her need to choose between these two. Discuss this contrast and the way in which Winnie deals with it. Does she opt entirely for one or the other? Does she, in the end, make a compromise?
3. Although the Tucks' lifestyle seems very simple, Babbitt carefully balances its positive and negative aspects. There is much about the way the Tucks live that Winnie finds attractive, but there is also much that seems appalling or boring. Discuss the Tucks' lifestyle, highlighting its positive and negative aspects.
4. Could Winnie ultimately have been happy with Jesse? Should she have waited until she was old enough and then drunk the water of eternal life? Using material from the novel, give reasons for your opinion. What would their life together have been like? Does it seem likely that they would have stayed with Mae and Angus Tuck, or do you think they would have gone a different direction?
5. Generally it is assumed that children and young...
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Babbitt insists that there will never be a sequel to Tuck Everlasting, though many people have asked for one. She argues that the Tucks themselves, despite their immortality are of interest only in so far as their lives intersect with Winnie Foster's. For this reason she has also turned down a suggested television series based on the book. There is a motion picture version of Tuck Everlasting, however, which is generally faithful to the novel and has received good reviews. Filmed in upstate New York by director Frederick King Keller in 1980, it stars Margaret Chamberlain and Paula Flessa. The movie is available on videotape.
Many of Babbitt's other novels, however, share something very important with Tuck Everlasting. If Babbitt has one overreaching theme in her work, it may well be the necessity of coming to terms both with the past and the passage of time. The Tuck family has, in effect, been frozen in time. Since they drank from the fountain, nothing has changed. Similarly, in a number of Babbitt's other novels, traumatic events leave characters scarred, frozen, unable to get on with their lives.
In The Eyes of the Amaryllis an old woman has lived her entire life mourning the death of her shipwrecked husband. In Goody Hall a rich woman has spent years in retreat from the world mourning the death of her husband. This inability to come to terms with the past has blighted both women's relationships with their...
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For Further Reference
Babbitt, Natalie. "The Great American Novel for Children—And Why Not." The Horn Book Magazine 50 (April 1974): 176-175. Babbitt's thoughts on contemporary fiction for children and adolescents. By describing what she dislikes about such books, this essay gives great insight into what Babbitt is trying to do in her fiction.
"The Roots of Fantasy." The Bulletin 12 (Spring 1986): 2-4. A love of fantasy, Babbitt suggests, is deeply rooted in the human psyche.
"Something Has to Happen." The Lion and the Unicorn 9 (1985): 7-10. Babbitt discusses plot motivation and the powerlessness of most children.
Hartvigsen, M. Kip, and Christen Brog Hartvigsen. " 'Rough and Soft Both at...
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