Drinking from the Spring: On Rereading Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
By Marcie McCauley | On October 31, 2019 | Updated December 12, 2022 | Comments (2)
The last day of October marks Samhain, the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter. This Gaelic festival opens the door to the darker part of the year, and it’s also the anniversary of author Natalie Babbitt’s death in 2016. What better time to consider Babbitt’s remarkable novel about mortality and immortality, Tuck Everlasting (1975), a story that rewards young and adult readers alike.
When I first reread Tuck, I was in my thirties. It was never one of my school texts: when I was a girl, it hadn’t yet achieved its iconic status. But the timing for me to rediscover this story, about how “dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born” was perfect.
I returned to it when I was staying with an older relative who was living with a terminal disease. Most of the care-giving duties fell to more experienced family members, but between more demanding weeks filled with appointments and treatments, I moved into the spare bedroom and managed the household shopping and chores.
Removed from my everyday life, I had a lot of time to read; I visited the public library nearly every day, browsing the adult fiction but borrowing favorite children’s stories. For entertainment. And for comfort. One of these was Tuck.
Tuck Everlasting in brief
Originally intended for middle grade children, it’s a gracefully written story that has resonated with readers of all ages. It explores the idea of eternal life, and its flip side, mortality.
When 10-year-old Winnie Foster inadvertently comes upon the Tuck family, she learns that they became immortal when they drank from a spring on her family’s property.
They tell Winnie how they’ve watched life go by for decades, while they themselves never grow older. Winnie must decide if she’ll keep the Tucks’ secret, and whether she wants to join them on their immortal path.
Literature and unanswerable questions
I had no idea that, when Tuck Everlasting was new, Michele Landsberg had heralded Babbitt’s explanation of death as “one of the most vivid and deeply felt passages in American children’s literature.”
I suspect an editor believed it was accurate to specify ‘children’s’ literature, but Babbitt herself believed that the best stories were the ones “with unanswerable questions remaining unanswered, retaining their mystery and their wonder,” and that these questions existed for all human beings.
The novel grew directly out of a question, in fact. Babbitt describes the origins of the story in an interview celebrating the 40th anniversary of Tuck Everlasting, with NPR’s Melissa Block for All Things Considered:
“Well, it’s not entirely a kids’ book. But it came into my mind — I have three children and my youngest is my daughter. One day she had trouble sleeping, woke up crying from a nap.
And we looked into it together, as well as you can with a 4-year-old, and she was very scared with the idea of dying. And it seemed to me that that was the kind of thing you could be scared of for the rest of your life, and so I wanted to make sure that she would understand what it was more.
And it seemed to me that I could write a story about how it’s something that everybody has to do and it’s not a bad thing.”
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Tuck Everlasting was adapted into a 2002 film
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Fiction, reality, and mythology
Everything in the story “comes from actually living it,” Babbitt explains in a 2015 interview with Publishers Weekly. While their children were young, the family spent weekends and holidays near Forestport, on a “little house on a pond” in the Adirondacks of upper New York state.
The house serves as the cover image for Tuck Everlasting and even small details, like the mouse in the drawer, were drawn from her family’s experiences there.
There was, however, another significant influence on her writing. In 1972, Babbitt read The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) by Joseph Campbell, which she considered a “densely scholarly work.” (And so influential that she returned to it in later years as well.)
She observes the impact of its psychological and mythological content in the archetypes of Tuck’s babbling spring, dark forest, great tree, and herald/carrier toad.
She later specifically outlines the archetypal roles of two female characters in a 2000 interview with Betsy Hearne in Horn Book Magazine, how the older one, Mae, is an “ancient kind of heroine” — “an Earth Mother figure if there ever was one, while the younger, Winnie, is a “new kind of heroine,”and how Mae is “protecting Winnie, her young, but she’s also protecting the young of the world.”
How Tuck Everlasting begins
The novel begins slowly, with the kind of sentences that I can imagine having skipped as an impatient young reader. The kind of sentences I love as an adult.
Since that first rereading, I’ve reread this book several times in high summer. In every encounter, Tuck’s opening passage pleases me anew: “The first week in August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.”
Babbitt recognizes, however, that the opening does not suit every reader. She describes to Hearne the elements of the writing process that complicate readers’ immersion into the story:
“One of the reasons why it takes so long to get into the story is that Tuck has three first chapters. I would start and I would be going along and then I would think, ‘Well no, you have to say something before you come to this,’ so I’d put another chapter at the beginning of that one.
Kids are troubled by this; they think it starts very slowly, and for them I think it does. In my generation we are quite used to books that take you gradually into themselves.”
Writing about dilemmas (spoiler alert!)
Not only is there more than one entry point into a complex subject, but Babbitt is drawn to the challenge of writing about dilemmas. Some of these are resolved more quickly than others, as illustrated in the passage below.
Note: The resolution of one of these dilemmas is promptly revealed in Babbitt’s remark so, if you prefer to avoid plot spoilers, jump to the “Writing and editing” heading and resume reading.
When students wrote to Babbitt about plot points, some dilemmas are debated and others are flatly accepted:
“Curiously, no child has ever written to me about whether or not Mae Tuck should have killed the man in the yellow suit. They always write about whether or not Winnie Foster should have drunk the spring water and gone off with the fascinating Jess Tuck. They seem to feel that the man in the yellow suit, like the Wicked Witch of the West, needed killing, and so it’s all right.”
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Learn more about Natalie Babbitt
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Telling truthful stories
Willing acceptance on the part of readers does not necessarily align with a writer’s sense of purpose but, in this case, Babbitt saw no alternative. She viewed this plot point as inevitable and truthful:
“I don’t like violence in any form, but I got right up to the point when the man in the yellow suit was dragging Winnie Foster away, and I knew what I would have done if I’d been Mae Tuck.
I knew that if someone had broken into my house and had tried to drag one of my children away, I’d have grabbed anything that came to hand and bashed him as hard as I could. I wouldn’t have paused to think it over.
And neither would any other female, two legs or four, in all of the natural world. This is the simple truth. And when you write it for children, the truth is vital.”
Babbitt’s commitment to truth-telling is admirable. She was fortunate to find support and encouragement in her editorial partnership with Michael di Capua, with whom she worked on her first publication and continued to work throughout her career.
On writing and editing Tuck Everlasting
Di Capua did not view the quality of Babbitt’s work in Tuck any differently from her other work. It was “the same old, same old: yet another brilliant performance from her.”
In terms of her writing process, Babbitt did not view Tuck any differently either. It was consistent with her established process as she describes it to Hearne, and she, in turn, compliments di Capua’s editorial performance:
“As far as drafts are concerned, the way I’ve always worked is different from some of my colleagues who go from A all the way to Z and then start all over again to do their rewriting.
That’s a perfectly good way, but I rewrite each sentence when I come to it until it’s just the way I want it. So in that sense Tuck didn’t take any longer to write than any of my other books, about a year–nine months to a year, something like that.
My editor, Michael di Capua, did some editing on it, but he did more boosting than anything else. He’s very good at that.”
Di Capua did, however, recognize one key difference with this work of Babbitt’s: that “the theme of Tuck – ‘would eternal life be a good thing?’ – was a much grander theme than those of her previous books.”
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Quotes from Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
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Young readers’ responses
Her first audience also recognized the unique quality of the work. There, in that little house on the pond, Babbitt’s husband, Samuel, first read aloud Tuck Everlasting to the couple’s three children, before it was published.
Even then, their youngest daughter, Lucy, as she tells School Library Journal, “knew right away that it was something special.”
Neither the writing process nor the editorial relationship is of particular interest to the millions of young readers who have, since, read Tuck Everlasting. For them, the story is of primary importance: sometimes satisfactory, sometimes lacking, and sometimes raising another set of questions.
One student hated the ending when she first read the story at ten years old. Rather than disagree, Babbitt asked the girl to read it again in a few years and, when she was in her middle teens, she wrote a letter to Babbitt to say that she was satisfied with the ending after all.
Babbitt describes this incident in various places, including a piece on the book’s 40th anniversary at Bookish.
A writer’s responsibility
In an essay in 2004, Babbitt reveals some other readers’ disappointment with the story:
“A letter I got last year from some boys in Boston told me that Tuck Everlasting would have been a lot better if it had had some dirt-bike racing in it. Maybe so, but I have to write the kind of story I write, because it’s the only kind of story that, for me, anyway, is worth the immense difficulty of writing.”
Her talk of a compulsion to tell worthwhile stories resurfaces in interviews and essays throughout her career. Here, this immense difficulty she alludes to is accompanied by the sense of an immense responsibility.
In a 1987 essay, Babbitt considers whether one reader’s observation about the imaginative and the real illuminates another layer to the responsibility that writers bear for readers:
“On a recent school visit, I was asked by a fifth grader if the magic spring water in Tuck Everlasting is real. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it isn’t real.’ ‘But,’ said the fifth grader, ‘didn’t you ever think that when you described it so well, as if it was real, we might believe you?’
I have lain awake nights over this question. Are we somehow implying in our books that the unreal, the impossible, is more greatly to be desired than the real and the possible?”
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Respect and rewards for readers
Babbitt gives her young readers credit for contemplating and addressing tough questions. When School Library Journal asks what she wants as a legacy, Babbitt replies: “That my books don’t play down to kids.” Tuck doesn’t play down to any reader: it demands that readers up their game. But it offers substantial rewards too.
In Horn Book Magazine in 2000, writer Tim Wynne Jones observes: “I think, a century from now, that Tuck will still have something essential to say about the human condition. And how well it does so, with flawless style, in words that are exact and simple and soothing and right.”
That’s what I yearn for when I choose to reread Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting: a story that is “exact and simple and soothing and right.”
No matter where we are in the “live-long year,” no matter the ease or the discordance with which the wheel is turning, returning to her archetypal spring sustains and refreshes me. As a reader. And as a seeker.
Note: The above quotations from Natalie Babbitt are drawn from several essays in Barking with the Big Dogs: On Writing and Reading Books for Children (2018). Other interviews and articles are referenced in the body of the work above.
Contributed by Marcie McCauley, a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the Humber College Creative Writing Program. She writes and reads (mostly women writers!) in Toronto, Canada. And she chats about it on Buried In Print and @buriedinprint.