Although this book was not intended exclusively for a young adult readership, it certainly addresses social issues, life themes, and personal struggles of compelling interest to this audience. The Prince of Tides joins a body of literature that young adult readers have found appealing which uses sea images and voyage metaphors to navigate the protagonist in the search for meaning to life’s chaotic episodes and painful challenges. Pat Conroy, the author, is certainly conscious of this literary device. “Writing,” he maintains, “is a journey for me, it builds like a coral reef.”
Another appealing dimension of this book can be found in the way in which Conroy uses family history as a therapeutic tool for uncovering the devastating secrets that warp and paralyze the lives of children and adolescents who grow up amid familial dysfunction. Living in such “crazy-making” families forces young people to learn and live a fabricated family history built on lies, denial, and shame. These fictitious family stories burden young people with the baggage of guilt that they will carry into their adult years. If left secret and unpacked, this baggage can destroy lives, as it did for Luke Wingo, or marginalize lives, as it did for Lila and Savannah Wingo.
The Prince of Tides is a story in the tradition of the sweeping Southern saga. It provides another important lens for contrasting the South that was—tradition-filled and rooted—with the South that now is—fundamentally altered and ever-changing. It is a narrative of the Southern tradition with a vast sweep of melodramatic events intermingling despair and hope, damnation and redemption.
One final theme makes The Prince of Tides a compelling book for young adult readers: In the final analysis, it is a book about survival. Faced with a devastating childhood and adolescence, burdened with a cycle of dysfunctional living that pollutes and victimizes his early adult life, Tom Wingo survives to rewrite an alternative story for his future and the future of his family.