This review was contributed by Clare Cannon, Portico Books
In Brief: A brief but deeply philosophical fantasy that explores the nature of life, change, death and immortality.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published in: 1975
Age Range: Pre Teens+
Period: Late 19th C
Setting: A small American town
- Winnie Foster is an 11-year-old only child who is petted and over-protected by her parents. She thinks of running away to be able to have some time to herself. She only gets as far as the woods next-door, where she meets Jesse Tuck drinking from the enchanted spring.
- Mae Tuck is a kindly middle-aged mother of the Tuck family who all drank from the magic spring which makes them live forever. She is determined not to let other human beings come to the same fate.
- Angus Tuck is the father of the Tuck family. He philosophises with Winnie about the necessity for life to change, to grow and move on.
- Miles Tuck is 21, the older of the two Tuck brothers. He had married before realising that he wouldn’t grow up, and once his wife noticed he wasn’t aging she left with the children, thinking he had sold his soul to the devil.
- Jesse Tuck is 17, the younger Tuck. He tries to make the most of his extended time by looking for fun.
The over-protected eleven-year-old Winnie Foster loses her patience and runs away into the woods next to her house where she meets seventeen-year-old Jesse Tuck drinking from a water spring. Soon after, his mother Mae and brother Miles arrive. They all seem eager to share a secret with Winnie, but carry her off to a more deserted place to explain the magic spring and their blessing-curse of living forever.
They take Winnie to their home in the hope that she might be able to help once she understands their predicament. Winnie is not sure what she believes, but she can’t bring herself to think the Tucks criminals.
Each of the Tucks explains to Winnie their own view of the situation. Mr Tuck explains that death is part of the wheel of life, and that “you can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest… the way we are, it’s useless… it don’t make sense… you can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got…”.
Miles is one of the deeper characters: “The way I see it… it’s no good hiding yourself away, like Pa and lots of other people. And it’s no good just thinking of your own pleasure, either. People got to do something useful if they’re going to take up space in the world.”
Jesse tries to persuade Winnie to drink from the spring once she’s 17, so that they can marry and go all around the world, see everything, and “have a good time that never, never stopped”. Winnie is very taken by Jesse and his “good times”, but deep down longs to do “something important” in her life, making her feel a deeper affinity with Miles.
Meanwhile, a man in a yellow suit has followed the group to the Tuck’s home after overhearing their story about the magic spring as they told it to Winnie on the road. He takes the information of Winnie’s whereabouts to her parents, offering to exchange her return for the gift of the woods next to their house, which he now knows contains the magic spring.
He returns to the Tuck residence with a proposal that the Tuck family could be a living demonstration of his new product: water that makes you live forever. The Tucks strongly object to becoming his ‘freaks’ and are even more upset about his proposal of making the spring’s power public.
In desperation Mae Tuck hits the man with the stock of a shotgun, knocking him unconscious. When he later dies as the result of the injury, Mae Tuck is arrested and sentenced to death by hanging.
Winnie, who has been returned to her parents, offers to change places with Mae in the jail to give the Tucks time to escape with her. The Tucks are desperate to free Mae before their secret becomes public when it is discovered that Mae cannot die. Winnie, who is not wholly convinced of their immortality, doesn’t want to find out whether or not it is true by seeing Mae hanged, and considers it partly her fault that the Tucks are in trouble. Winnie knows she can’t be punished for her part in the jail swap deceit because she is underage.
The reader learns of Winnie’s last choice, whether she did drink the magic water when she was 17, when Angus and Mae drive back through her town more than 70 years later, and find her tombstone in the Churchyard grave. Angus Tuck is both saddened and relieved, offering her a brief salute in farewell, “good girl”.
This book is a modern classic that is both deeply philosophical and at the same time simple and accessible. It is a very wise story which turns the usual fairy-tale ending “happily ever after” on its head. The reader is left to ponder the meaning of life and death, with the book pushing you in the direction of accepting death as a part of life, a part that even gives more meaning to the life-time you do have.
It requires a lot of thinking – the unthinking reader might find it quite strange and even depressing, since it challenges typical assumptions about what makes a happy ending. There are many study guides available which shows it is well suited to the classroom.
- The meaning of life and death
- Ageing and change
“Anyhow, I come to say goodbye. We won’t be able to come back here for a long, long time, Winnie, if we get away. I mean, they’ll be looking for Ma. Winnie, listen – I won’t see you again, not for ages. Look now – here’s a bottle of water from the spring. You keep it. And then, no matter where you are, when you’re seventeen, Winnie, you can drink it, and then come find us. We’ll leave directions somehow. Winnie, please say you will!”
He pressed the little bottle into her hands and Winnie took it, closing her fingers over it. “Jesse, wait!” she whispered breathlessly, for all at once she had the answer. “I can help! When your mother climbs out the window, I’ll climb in and take her place. I can wrap myself up in her blanket, and when the constable looks in, he won’t be able to tell the difference. Not in the dark. I can hump up and look a lot bigger. Miles can even put the window back. That would give you time to get away! You’d have at least till morning!”
Jesse squinted at her, and then said, “Yep – you know, it might work. It might just make the difference. But I don’t know as Pa’s going to want you taking any risk. I mean, what’ll they say to you after, when they find out?
“I don’t know,” said Winnie, “but it doesn’t matter. Tell your father I want to help. I have to help. If it wasn’t for me, there wouldn’t have been any trouble in the first place. Tell him I have to.”
“Well… all right. Can you get out after dark?”
“Yes,” said Winnie.
“Then – at midnight, Winnie. I’ll be waiting for you right here at midnight.”
“Winifred!” an anxious voice called from the cottage. “Who’s that you’re talking to?”
“Winnie stood up and turned to answer. “It’s just a boy, Granny. I’ll be in in a minute.” When she turned around again, Jesse was gone. Winnie clutched the little bottle in her hands and tried to control the rising excitement that made her breath catch. At midnight she would make a difference in the world.
Thursday 17th May 2007