A Satisfying if Short Fable: Tuck Everlasting

9780312369811A friend recommended Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as a good children’s literature choice. Having blazed through it in two days, I can say that it was a satisfying if short read. The basic premise of the novel is this: there is a spring that grants immortality, discovered by the Tuck family and, a short way into the book, by Winnie Foster. Winnie, the novel`s young narrator, is lonely in her “touch-me-not” cottage with its high fence and over-protective parents. The one day she decides to run away, she happens to run into a young Jessie Tuck at the fountain and his parents then kidnap her in order to explain their dilemma. Talking, lots of rich description of a pastoral American landscape, and some nefarious action courtesy of a lean man in a yellow suit ensues.

Tuck Everlasting is a fable in the sense that it meditates on a moral situation: what are the implications of living forever. Of course, Babbitt’s book is too long to be a traditional fable and there are no talking animals here. The moral itself is even more complicated than a simple didactic one-liner like: cheating death is cheating life. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the book lacked something deeper than this interesting philosophical problem: what do you do if you live forever? Jessie, his brother MIles, and their parents all talk to Winnie about their century-long immortality. While Jessie, the youngest brother, clearly enjoys his ability to travel the world and have adventures, the parents provide a much more somber response. At a certain point, Winnie even notices the father looking enviously at a character who is dying. I felt that the complexities of immortality/mortality where well-handled in the book, hence why I call it a satisfying read. Don’t expect a profound meditation on mortality, but there is a strong element of deep thought at work.

I call Tuck Everlasting short because it is quite short (139 small pages). The plot moves quickly and Babbitt makes use of a surprising twist that manages to elevate the narrative out of a fable’s simplicity. However, I did feel like the novel comes close to being bare-bones. The landscape is set in a kind of pastoral America (at least I think it is the States given Babbitt’s own American identity – it could be anywhere I guess), Winnie’s family comes across as stuck-up, over-protective, and yet also naive. The Tucks are the only real characters possessing depth and individuality. I felt like Winnie herself was somewhat unappealing as a narrator. All of this to say that I found the novel only satisfying. Call it damning a book by lukewarm praise. I think this may have been a case of a children’s book being just that: a book for children that will leave more mature readers wanting more.

I recommend this book for young readers.

Babbitt, Natalie. Tuck Everlasting. New York: Square Fish, 1975. Print.

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Mortality Comes Home, and Other Poems: Brilliant Falls

9781554471232_bAnother bit of work slipping into the pleasure reading for the year, but John Terpstra’s Brilliant Falls would have been on this list anyways had I owned it when I made the list. Terpstra is a Hamilton-based poet who has consistently and unfairly flown under the radar of Canadian poetry`s landscape for a long time now. I`m not totally sure why this is, but it might be partly because he has taken a rather unconventional path to poetry. Where many Canadian poets are employed by universities or colleges to pay their bills, Terpstra is a self-employed cabinetmaker. This career is reflected in his poetic output with Naked Trees being a reflection of his own relationship to urban trees while numerous other poems take up trees and wood. The other reason that Terpstra might be passed over is because of his Christian overtones and imagery. His own relationship to the church and faith is explored in Skin Boat: Acts of Faith and Other Navigations, a work of non-fiction published in a beautiful edition by Gaspereau Press. Regardless, Brilliant Falls is a strong collection of poems by a mature poet who knows his voice and craft.

While many poetry collections lack a strong sense of connection across their length, this is not the case with Brilliant Falls. Human mortality is featured in many of the poems with a sequence of six poems, in particular, that reflect on death and its meaning for those who go on living. This is, in no small part, because Terpstra`s own parents have died in the last number of years and poems like “Driving Home Christmas” and “Emptying the House” reflect directly on these experiences. “Driving Home Christmas” is one of the strongest poems in the collection as Terpstra works his way through his father’s death near Christmas Day and the annual depression he undergoes at this time of year now. I particularly like how he skillfully weaves mortality with the Christian meaning of Christmas which celebrates the birth of God. What I think I like most of all is his honesty – it is clear that Terpstra struggled to write through these lines and I appreciate this. Reflecting on the lack of people at his father’s funeral, Terpstra writes

” … The place should have been packed,
but it was Christmas Eve, people were busy or away,
and it’s not as though the place was empty, but that I
expected more, and didn’t know I expected more
until the building didn’t fill to the rafters,
and the sky didn’t open to angels. Singing.”

The lack of crowd contrasts with the speaker’s own sense of death while Terpstra also alludes to the familiar Christmas annunciation story with angels announcing Christ’s birth. My favorite poem in the collection is “Topographies of Easter,” the poem from which the book’s title comes. Terpstra’s Falling into Place, a work of creative non-fiction exploring Hamilton’s geography, is a personal favorite and in “Topographies of Easter” Terpstra looks again at the Hamilton landscape. He describes Hamilton’s landscape as:

” … this body that is broken
by time and season and violence too deep
for us to wonder at the source, broken
into beauty that lures our present rambling
and leads us to the edge of this escarpment”

I love the way Terpstra recognizes the enormity of geological forces; forces which dwarf the human ability to manipulate the world. But I also love the way that Terpstra captures the rugged beauty of the Niagara Escarpment, a geological feature that lures us forward. I’ll admit that I am biased towards Terpstra because of my own religious views and the fact that I live in Hamilton. However, I do think that his poetry is well worth the time.

I highly recommend Brilliant Falls for any fans of Canadian poetry.

Terpstra, John. Brilliant Falls Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2013. Print.