Living forever is an interesting idea. What would you do if you had all the time in the world? I would think it would get boring after a while because you would see history cycle around and cycle around with people and nations making the same mistakes over and over again. If a being isn’t supernatural, immortality is kind of an anathema. The late Natalie Babbitt explored this idea in what is probably her most famous book, Tuck Everlasting.
Originally published in 1975, the story’s main character is ten-year old Winnie Foster, who lives in a cottage in a little town called Treegap. Her home is loving but very presentational, as the Fosters are one of the oldest and richest families in Treegap. Winnie spends her days in her yard gazing at the forest next to her family’s home, wondering what it would be like to sneak away.
One day she does venture into the forest, and as the day is very hot, looks around for a place to get a drink. She spies a spring bursting out from under a tree in a clearing and also a boy, Jesse drinking out of it. She tries to join him, but he discourages her from drinking, and Winnie finds herself being spirited away to the boy’s house by his mother, Mae. Winnie is upset until Mae plays a gentle tune on her music box and that seems to calm her.
Jesse and Mae are part of the Tuck family, who live at the far edge of the forest, and what’s more, they never age. They look exactly the same way they did on the day they first drank from the spring. Winnie is at once horrified and intrigued when she hears their story.
The family keeps to themselves because they’ve been accused of witchcraft, and also because they don’t want people asking too many questions about the spring. Instead, the boys, Miles and Jesse travel for ten-year stretches, fighting in any wars that may occur and working at various jobs. Meanwhile, their parents seldom go into town. Instead, they stand guard over the spring and hope their non-presence keeps curiousity from being aroused.
The Tucks are good people, so Winnie becomes fast friends with them. She finds their life delightfully free and unpretentious, which is a refreshing change from her very disciplined existence. She also finds herself entertaining the idea of drinking the water herself when she’s seventeen, so she and Jesse can get married and travel the world until the end of time.
However, danger looms. The Man in the Yellow Suit (that’s all he’s known as) comes to Winnie’s house sniffing around, and when he finds out Winnie is missing, her parents give him the woods in exchange for her safe return. The big questions are, will the Tucks’ secret stay safe, and will Winnie drink the water?
Tuck Everlasting was inspired by the Norse myth of Yggdrasil, or the Tree of Life in the Asgard Forest. This tree’s roots extended out across the lands and the tree’s branches across the heavens, with a spring emanating from it. It was portrayed as giving life. This was Babbitt’s basis for her novel.
Her aim was also practical. As she said in an interview: “Tuck Everlasting is about what it might be like to live forever, not in a fairy tale, but to really live forever.”
So where does Babbitt land on the issue? Let’s put it this way: Babbitt points out the pros and cons of having all the time in the world. On one hand, a person never becomes old and infirm, they’re completely invulnerable to all causes of death, and they have the luxury of slowness. On the other hand, one just exists, with death seeming like the only real change. Babbitt illustrates this by having Tuck jealously eye a dead man at a crucial moment.
With a story this intriguing, it’s only natural that Hollywood would want to get in on the action. In 1981 a film was released that was based slightly on the book. I say, “slightly” because there were some odd choices made in the screenplay. Unfortunately, I can’t say too much about them because it would spoil things, but Jesse climbs around on a Ferris wheel in the first five minutes and the story is pushed forward in time a bit.
The film is easily accessible on YouTube and not really anywhere else. Fans seem to be divided on it; a lot like it. but others say it’s boring. I’m inclined to side with the latter. The film is not terrible, but it shows too much hand too soon, and a story like this needs subtlety.
The 2002 Disney film seemed to achieve this much more effectively. Like the 1981 film, it’s moved forward in time, both chronologically and character-wise. Instead of 1880, the movie is set in the 1910s. Winnie (Alexis Bledel) is fourteen going on fifteen, so the relationship between she and Jesse (Johnathan Jackson) is immediately romantic, making the will-she-won’t-she question an urgent one. Her impetus for running off into the woods is that her parents tell her she’s going to be sent to a super-strict finishing school, at which point free-spirit Winnie literally bolts.
In the woods she finds the Tucks and their house that looks like it’s been lived in so long it’s become part of the forest, and it’s a relief to see her breathe.
Lest this all seem too placid, though, the Man in the Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley) is always lurking, even more than in the book. He’s almost like the Terminator, because nothing seems to stop this guy at first. Again, not gonna spoil anything.
There’s so much I like about the 2002 film. Sissy Spacek is a wonderful Mae Tuck; she’s so sincere that it’s hard not to like her. William Hurt as Angus Tuck looks all kinds of world-weary. Miles (Scott Bairstow), while the most cynical and jaded of the family, is the keeper of the family’s backstory. Plus, the music is awesome. It has a rollicking Scots-Irish feel, very organic, and woven throughout is the little melody Mae keeps playing on her music box.
Tuck Everlasting has even been made into a musical. First premiering in Atlanta, Georgia in 2015, it moved to Broadway in 2016, where it ran for 39 regular performances and 28 previews. The reviews of the Broadway run were tepid, and it underperformed at the box office, but it seemed to be a faithful adaptation of the book, albeit with a ballet thrown in.
No matter what medium it’s in, when it’s done well, Tuck Everlasting makes sure those who experience it are not only enjoying it, but looking inside themselves and thinking about how they live. This was always Natalie Babbitt’s aim when she wrote. As she once said:
“Stories can give answers of a sort and we try to pick the stories that are the most satisfying to us and make us feel the most comfortable, but we always need the answers to those terrible, terrible questions: Who are you, where are you going, and where did you come from?”
A special announcement is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you in a couple of days…
“A Visit With Natalie Babbitt.” Dir.: Unknown. Starring Natalie Babbitt. Walt Disney Company, 2002. Featurette.