Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Tillermans

Maybe life was like the sea, and all the people were like boats ... Or maybe each boat was a kind of family. Then, what kind of boat would the Tillermans be? A little one, bobbling about, with the mast fallen off? A grubby, worn-down workboat, with Dicey hanging on to the rudder for dear life.
  Everybody who was born was coast on to the sea. Winds would blow them in all directions. Tides would rise and turn, in their own rhythm. And the boats - they just went along as best they could, trying to find a harbour.
Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt, first published in 1981, is one of those quintessential classic American children's books. Or at least one of those thick-paged, yellowing novels from the 1970s and 80s that have the same feel, the same smell, the same dorky, now-dated cover illustrations. The characters and the worlds they inhabit are small, but the stories are so rich. I don't feel like the authors are trying to impress me with how cool the characters are, but the focus is on creating relationships that ring true, that tell stories of sadness without being shocking or depressing, that capture a little bit of a life so fully.

Dicey and her brothers and sister (James, Sammy and Maybeth) are abandoned by their mother and find themselves alone in a car park in a strange city. When she doesn't come back Dicey decides they will walk to Bridgeport, where they had been headed before their mother left them, to go and stay with a relative there. Within a few pages you know these children so well and your heart fairly breaks for them as they hope to find their Momma waiting for them in Bridgeport.


There's a lot of walking involved, a lot of trudging, lots of stale donuts eaten and every penny they can get their hands on can go five ways. As the children walk, they talk about their Momma - who clearly became a very sad woman unable to care for her family - they sing together and they form an unbreakable unit. When Bridgeport doesn't turn out the way they expected, the Tillermans head off again, in search of an estranged, eccentric grandmother.

This review made me so sad. Of course we're not all going to like the same stories etc etc, and the books have more supporters than critics on Goodreads so I shouldn't complain, but at least try to tell me what made you stop reading.

Homecoming definitely has a wholesome whiff about it, for sure, but in a way that acknowledges and appreciates the dark side of the world and doesn't dismiss it or run away from it. All the children (and most of the grown-ups) learn about right and wrong, about what's important in life - and learn that all these things are difficult and changeable and confusing. The people that the Tillermans encounter on their travels, and the kindness (and cruelty) of strangers, the sea motif and the ideas of home and family all make for the best kind of book, in my opinion.

Homecoming's sequel, Dicey's Song, won the Newbery Medal in 1983.

The Tillerman Cycle: Dicey's Song, A Solitary Blue, The Runner, Sons from Afar, Come a Stranger, Seventeen Against the Dealer.

4 comments:

  1. I only discovered 'Homecoming' last year and I was instantly hooked, I have since bought and devoured all the books in the cycle. I absolutely loved these books, I was totally absorbed in the Tillermans' story and I was so moved by Dicey's struggles to keep the family together and surviving. She is a wonderful character, both tough and vulnerable. I'm really sad too that someone 'abandoned' the Tillermans halfway through their journey! I'm so grateful that I found them.

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  2. Oh my goodness, Kate thank you for reminding me of this book! I was thinking of it recently and just couldn't remember the name at all. I read this when I was about 11ish (I think) and even though the title escaped me, the narrative has stuck with me for a long time :)

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  3. I read them when they were new! I taught 'Dicey's Song' to a couple of Yr 9 classes, then finally, wrote my first author fan letter, sent by snail mail, (oh so long ago), and she replied! I would like to think, if I went looking for that gorgeous handwritten letter, I would be able to find it. I confessed my secret wish to be a librarian, and she responded 'go for it'. My fav is Jeff's story, 'A Solitary Blue'.

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