When I was eleven or so, one of my favorite books was a short children's novel called Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. Centering on a family that cannot die, and the little girl who becomes their friend, the book is brief and quiet with the exception of one moment of great violence. I have clear memories of openly weeping in the book's final pages, completely overcome by grief and confusion over a decision the protagonist, Winnie Foster, makes in the end. This is one of those books I may never get out of my mind, even all these years later. So I decided to reread the book, to see if it produced any kind of the same effect on me.
I have to admit, I didn't shed a tear this time around. I was still sad about the choices and consequences faced by all the characters, but now as a more clear-headed adult, they made much more sense to me. The book manages to pack the heavy themes of morality and mortality in less than 140 pages. The titular family - Mr. and Mrs. Tuck, along with their adult sons Miles and Jesse - took a drink of a spring 87 years ago and have not aged since. Despite many accidents that should have been fatal, they are all still alive and well. They've become drifters, never quite fitting in anywhere and moving on before anyone gets suspicious. When they almost-accidentally "kidnap" Winnie, they tell her their story. Meanwhile, a nasty blackmailing ass-hat in a yellow suit tries to follow them, hoping to bottle their secret and sell it to the world for a high price. Eventually, a surprisingly brutal event takes place that shakes up the relatively somber atmosphere leading up to it. And then, in the end, Winnie makes an interesting choice that requires even a young reader to think about questions of life and death.
But what struck me about the novel this time around was Babbitt's portrayal of a little girl's first crush. Ten-year-old Winnie becomes infatuated with the easygoing, goodlooking teenager Jesse Tuck as soon as she lays eyes on him. It's almost painful to read about Winnie's childish love for him, now that I look back on my own stupid girlhood crushes. Babbitt does a great job of showing a completely innocent infatuation that is doomed from the beginning, and she does it without an ounce of melodrama or emotional manipulation. As a kid, I couldn't help but like Jesse either. Now, twelve years later, it's easy to see how foolish Winnie and I both were. However, the final moment we see from Winnie in the penultimate chapter (which concerns a decision affecting both her and Jesse) still makes me tremendously sad for these dopey kids.
I enjoyed revisiting Tuck Everlasting, even if it didn't have the same emotional impact on me that it had years ago. If you know a young reader with some patience and a strong sense of right and wrong, this makes a great read. And that goes for adults, too, those beings who know all too well what life and death mean.