It’s been a rough week in our house, for one reason and another. I’ve been unusually tired and low, though still vastly improved from the worst days. The good news is that I rediscovered some of my favourite childhood novels and have spent the week snatching time to read about the Tillerman family.
Cynthia Voigt has created distinctive, three-dimensional characters who develop and change as the series goes on. It’s extremely satisfying to be able to see inside the heads of likeable children, all different, and watch them grow up.
Dicey is first, and most extraordinary. In Homecoming, the first (and best?) book of the Tillerman cycle, Dicey is thirteen. She and her younger brothers and sister, James, Maybeth and Sammy, are in their clapped-out car waiting for their Momma to come back. But she doesn’t.
When they’ve waited for her for a day and a night, Dicey realises she’s not coming back, and it’s up to her to look after ‘her family.’ She knows they were on their way to see an old aunt of their Momma’s, whom they’d never met, and she knows the aunt’s address. Wary of asking for help and risking being taken into care, and, worst risk of all, being separated, Dicey leads her family on foot, with no money, down the east coast of America, looking for a home.
Dicey is formidable. She’s smart, resourceful and full of determination. You’d want her to be on your side in a fight or a scheme. She’s a natural leader who has had to bring up her siblings for years while Momma worked at minimum wage. Leading them on a self-sufficient trek with no certain future is just an extension of her life so far. This appalling responsibility has hot-housed her natural gifts to make her extraordinary, but it has also cost a lot, as we see through the rest of the series.
Homecoming is surprisingly down-to-earth in tone. It reminds you of The Odyssey in structure, but not in flavour. All sorts of mundane and outlandish things happen as they troop down the coast, but they’re all seen from the perspective of a collection of hardy kids who know that the world is made for adults with money. The Tillermans take the good and the bad as matters of fact, to be accepted or got over.
Even in this first novel, all four children are striking. Six-year-old Sammy, with a powder-keg temper and stubbornness a mule could learn from, takes his fishing responsibilities seriously, and can spend patient hours catching enough to feed the family for dinner. Ten-year-old genius, James, greets each new day of the journey with the words, ‘It’s still real.’ Nine-year-old Maybeth is so shy that adults think her mind isn’t quite right, but whenever she does talk, she brings emotional clarity and insight to the family that they need.
They sing, they flee, they work, they trudge, they stick together, these Tillermans.
In the following six books we meet their friends and see them all grow up through the late seventies and eighties. My favourites after Homecoming might be the three that are peripheral to the four Tillermans. A Solitary Blue and Come a Stranger tell the very different back-stories of Dicey’s two closest friends, and overlap with Dicey’s Song to show their friendship from three perspectives. The Runner, tells a family story from the previous generation, set as the Vietnam War takes off and racial segregation ends at the local high school.
Cynthia Voigt is astonishingly good. She convincingly gets us inside the heads of very different people, and gets us to like them all, too. She stretches her younger readers – there’s nothing patronising here – and satisfies older ones. Neat endings are not for her. Not everything works out as you want it to. But you do want to be friends with every one of the Tillermans and their wider circle.
That’s why the Tillerman books make this list – not because they’re excellent novels in every way, but because the characters will stay with you and call you to be a bit more like them. I want to have more of Maybeth’s contentedness in hardship, more of Sammy’s open straightforwardness, more of James’ courage to learn to be himself. And Dicey, wow. I wish I were a tenth as hardworking and determined as she is, and I’m inspired by her loyalty, resourcefulness and the family life she fosters. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, so I won’t give more examples, but there’s a fictional mentor for everyone in this series.
This is part of an occasional series on inspiring characters in fiction, who mentor us from the pages of books. The ‘mighty’ comes from A Mighty Girl, a great resource for strong female characters and role models.