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.
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 that violence on the other characters. Mae Tuck's killing of the stranger, for example, emphasizes to Winnie Foster her own mortality and the potential for immortality which the Tuck's offer her.
Babbitt's work is also somewhat old fashioned in its use of allusions to folklore, mythology, and classic literature. In Tuck Everlasting, for example, there are a series of references to the wheel of life and the cycle of the seasons. Even the supposedly illiterate old Angus Tuck knows that "dying's part of the wheel" and that he and his family have somehow fallen off. The fountain of eternal life, lying at the foot of an ash tree, is clearly a reference to Yggdrasil, the Norse symbol of the universe, an ash tree at whose foot was the fount of immortality. There is also a reference to Richard Lovelace's classic "To Althea, from Prison": "Stone walls do not a prison make/ Nor iron bars a cage."
(The entire section contains 1430 words.)
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