Living and Dying with Tuck Everlasting

Enter Mae Tuck: part Annie Oakley, part hippie Earth Mother, Mae is on horseback and carries with her a wooden music box from which hails the music. Mae has traveled into the village of Treegap to reunite with her two sons, Miles and Jesse, who she hasn’t seen in ten years. After Winnie questions them on who they are and where they’re from, Mae takes her via horseback to the Tucks’ cottage, twenty miles yet twenty thousand worlds away from Winnie’s sheltered home. Once there, she delights in the bohemian ways of the Tuck family. As Winnie quickly becomes attached to the Tucks, they confess their secret, of drinking from a spring 86 years prior, a spring whose water grants each of them the ability to stop aging, and ultimately, to become immortal.

Finally! Here was a story in which people could and did eschew death, a place in which time stood still and music made magic, a land in which a 10-year-old girl is given the option of drinking spring water that allows her and everyone she loves the ability to live forever. I occupied that world body, mind and soul, reading and re-reading its short chapters as if the more I read them, the more likely they were to come true. I thought if Natalie Babbitt could even conceive of such a plot, it must be based on some grain of truth, and there must be a way to locate some natural source, an antidote to dying, and avoid death once and for all. I was too far gone to call it denial; the fact was, I preferred to live inside the pages and plot of a complete fantasy, choosing fiction over funerals.

In retrospect, what I really needed was professional grief counseling; 27 years later, in graduate school, I got it in the form of a student teaching assignment.

I thought if Natalie Babbitt could even conceive of such a plot, it must be based on some grain of truth, and there must be a way to locate some natural source, an antidote to dying, and avoid death once and for all. I was too far gone to call it denial.

In my final semester of graduate school this past September I innately knew, when my supervising teacher handed me Tuck Everlasting as the text that I would teach to 80 seventh-graders, that this was in no way a cosmic coincidence; I was supposed to reconcile my painful past and wavering faith in the soul’s ability to transcend the body. This time, I realized that Tuck Everlasting was less about avoiding death than it was about believing in eternity despite its uncertainty. Tuck forces the reader to reconcile the burden it would be to never grow old, to never die. The novel’s ultimate message isn’t particularly didactic, religious, or even uplifting; it’s realistic. The “happy” ending, which occurs seventy years later in the epilogue, takes place in a cemetery, where the reader learns that the main character has chosen not to drink the spring water that will guarantee her immortality, and had died a natural death. What that means to me is that she chose the hope of eternity, to die without a guarantee of anything more; in essence, Winnie chose to have faith. I realized then that this is what I had been seeking all along. I will never have the answers to the existential questions that my naïve 10-year-old self thought possible to find; no one can. What I needed to find was enough faith so that not having answers would somehow be okay.

In Tuck Everlasting, Angus Tuck says, “You can’t have living without dying.” In Chekov’s play The Seagull, the character Nina says, “You must bear your cross and have faith.” And it was St. Francis of Assisi who said, “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Twenty-seven years later, I’m starting to believe them.