Most of the assigned books in middle school were not my favorite books. In fact, I don’t remember liking many of them, especially when they involved dogs dying.
In 6th grade, we read Tuck Everlasting and I was shocked to discover I LOVED it, in spite of the fact the school curriculum was forcing it on me. It was mysterious, magical, romantic, and deep. I mean it’s a book for pre-teens that asks, “Would you choose eternal life?”
Briefly, it’s the Edwardian era and a girl named Winnie stops at a spring to take a drink of water when a family that has magically stopped aging ever since they drank the water from the same spring stops her. She stays with them for a few days, learning about their life and crushing on their son, Jesse. Winnie contemplates whether she wants to join the Tucks after a crime forces the family to flee. Will Winnie choose to drink the water and spend her life with her beloved Jesse? Or will she decide to live a normal life with her family and accept the inevitability of death?
I LOVED Winnie and Jesse’s flirtation, and having an intense fear of death as a youngster I was intrigued by the theme of the book. Let’s see if it holds up.
Childhood Rating: 5 out of 5 enchanted springs
No matter how old I get, this book still destroys me every time I read it. The film version has peppered my memories of the book. I forgot the book takes place in 1880, NOT the Edwardian era. Jesse and Winnie’s relationship is a side note in the book whereas it’s the central plot of the movie. I feel like I hyped up Jesse/Winnie before the movie came out, probably because when you’re eleven every tiny hint at romance seems grand to your inexperienced mind. I appreciated the message of the story more than I ever have before.
Winnie’s family owns the woods in their town, Treegap. Winnie feels trapped and stagnant behind the gate of her family’s cottage and yearns for freedom and adventure. She gets a taste of this when she decides to run away, drawn by what her grandmother says is “elf music” in the woods, and stumbles upon Jesse Tuck. The curly-haired 17-year-old seems to have stopped for a drink at a spring below a tree when Winnie startles him, and asks what he’s doing. As Winnie tries to take a sip from the spring as a relief from the August heat, Jesse vehemently urges her not to drink the dirty water. His mother, Mae, and brother, Miles, appear soon after and declare, “the worst has happened” when they see Winnie. They quickly steal Winnie away, stopping to tell her their story.
For eighty-seven years, the Tucks have not aged. They were on their way west when they stopped at the same spring for a drink before eventually settling in another town. As the years passed, the Tucks didn’t age and survived various lethal accidents (falling out of trees, snakebites). They were able to live for twenty years in relative peace until friends and Miles’ wife accused the immortal Tucks of witchcraft. Since then they’ve been wanderers. They take Winnie to a little house on a pond where Mae and Angus have lived for twenty years while their sons move from town to town making a living however they can and leaving before anyone notices their strange condition. The Tucks promise to take Winnie home the next day, after they’ve explained why their secret needs to remain a secret.
Winnie is torn between the Tucks and home. She isn’t sure if she believes their story, but it intrigues her. She finds the family, especially Jesse, lovable and childlike, but sad. She misses her home and her family while longing to stay with the Tucks and live a never-ending adventure. Lively and rambunctious Jesse makes the most of his family’s strange situation by seeking adventure and new experiences. He urges Winnie to drink from the spring when she’s 17 and join the family as his wife. His offer is enticing to Winnie, but Miles and Angus describe their bleaker views of their situation. Miles lost his wife and children because he couldn’t age. When his children reached adulthood, Miles refused to give them the spring water because he couldn’t accept being the same age as his children forever. Angus has a similar distaste for the unnatural quality of their immortality. He longs to age and eventually die because being immortal makes him feel separate from the wheel of life. Natalie Babbitt frequently describes details of the flora and fauna surrounding the Tucks and Winnie, contrasting the natural world with the Tucks’ unnatural condition. Winnie weighs these differing options, balancing her love for the Tucks against her love for her family.
Unfortunately, a sinister man in a yellow suit has ambitions that are more immoral. Having grown up with a grandmother who was friends with Miles’ wife, the man has heard stories of the immortal family and devoted his life to uncovering their secret. He happened to hear the Tucks telling Winnie their history and cons Winnie’s family into transferring ownership of the woods to him in exchange for his help in bringing Winnie home. He plans to sell the spring water and wants to use the Tucks to help advertise his product. When he confronts the Tucks and threatens Winnie, it leads to an event that threatens to expose the Tucks and the spring to the world. Winnie has to decide what’s right for her and help her beloved Tucks flee Treegap for good.
As a kid, I didn’t understand why there was debate over whether or not to be immortal. Um, dying’s scary; of course you should drink the spring water! Being older, I now side with Miles and Angus. Angus describes life as a wheel, and death is part of the wheel. If you take death out of the equation, the wheel doesn’t work. Angus’s life no longer works for him. Being unable to die has lessened his enjoyment of life, and he stresses to Winnie that you can’t choose parts of the “wheel” you want and leave out what you don’t want: the struggles in life are what make the triumphant parts enjoyable. Death makes life special. This is such a beautiful, deep message for any book, let alone a book written for middle grade children. In my opinion, this makes the book timeless and appealing to readers of any age. When I first read the book I felt sad for Winnie, but this time I felt sad for the Tucks.
One major complaint I’ve seen is about the Winnie/Jesse “romance.” Like I said, when I was eleven I built it up to be this huge, sweeping romance when really, it was nothing. Jesse’s happy, carefree attitude attracts Winnie. She’s definitely crushing on him a little, but they’ve met. It’s nothing serious. People get all up in arms like “Ew a 104-year-old is proposing to a 10-year-old!” I didn’t see it as Jesse being SUPER HOT for a 10-year-old. He was excited someone FINALLY knew their secret; it was a huge relief to share his story with someone outside the family. He saw this as an opportunity to finally be able to be close and fully truthful with another human. He knew how afraid the rest of the family had been about their secret getting out, and that this could be his only chance to be close to a new person. So he figured, wait until you’re seventeen, then come be immortal with me! It didn’t read as creepy to me, especially since the Tucks have seemed to have stopped aging mentally, not just physically. So Jesse doesn’t have the mentality of a 104-year-old trapped in the nubile body of a teenager, his personality clearly screams “stupid reckless teenager” that there’s no way he’s mentally one hundred and four. Miles had a wife and kids and it turned tragic because they kept aging. Jesse sees an opportunity to have a companion who knows his secret and might be willing to be immortal with him. It was earnest and sweet, if a little rushed. I guess when you finally spill the fact you’re immortal after eighty-seven years of secrecy you probably don’t want to lose your new friend. I was preparing to be squicked out by this while Rereading, and was pleasantly surprised to feel the opposite.
I need to commit to buying a copy of this book for my bookshelf because every time I read it, I love it. It’s a simple book that asks a timeless question: would you choose to life forever?
Adulthood Rating: 5 out of 5 immortal toads