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The Tillerman Cycle: A Review In Full
I got my start on this series with Dicey's Song in 7th Grade. I didn't read them all in order, but a few years ago I finally finished them all with Come a Stranger.
This series is amazing. Half the time I had to read something for a school assignment I ended up liking the book anyway, and Dicey's song is one of the earliest examples. Immediately I was drawn in by the story of this girl just coming into adolescence, and in addition to her changing body and learning to adjust at a new school she has her siblings to worry about. Her brothers stifle their true selves to try to fit in while her sister has a learning disorder, and she's torn between relief that their grandmother is willing to take care of them and resentment that her place as the decision-maker of the family has been overtaken.
I found out that this was only the second book in the series later on. Homecoming, the first installment, explains how the Tillermans came to live with their grandmother, which doesn't happen until the very end. When their loving but unstable mother abandons them in a mall parking lot, they follow the address to their great-aunt's home in Connecticut. Dicey, the oldest, takes it upon herself to handle everything from reading the map to keeping them fed, only allowing strangers to help when she has no other choice.
Though the story is told from Dicey's point of view, her siblings and even the people they meet along the way are fleshed out very well. Edie and Louis, a pair of hippies, have issues with Edie's stern father. Tom and Jerry, two boys they meet much later on, discuss their families. Even Cousin Eunice, painted as an antagonist, has depth to her character; she's never really lived her own life so much as she's followed someone else's plans for her: her mother's, the church's, God's. She doesn't want to care for the siblings but takes them in out of obligation, and while Dicey pities her she resents constantly being forced to feel grateful even when she can't bring herself to.
When the siblings realize Eunice and the nuns plan to separate them, they decide to go meet the grandmother they've heard about. Dicey's even kept the name in mind and saved up the money she makes doing odd jobs around the neighborhood long before their plans are cemented; in the back of her mind she seemed to know Bridgeport wouldn't work out. The second half of the story leads them to Crisfield, where they slowly win over a grandmother who initially doesn't want them by helping her around the house.
There's a sad, heart-tugging little scene in which Dicey realizes that at that moment, she's found herself in a paradox: Cousin Eunice doesn't want them but will take them, her grandmother wants them but after her disastrous marriage caused her to lose her hold on her own children, she can't bring herself to love her grandchildren.
But eventually, the tides turn in the children's favor. Dicey, James, Maybeth and Sammy Tillerman finally have a home, their grandmother even legally adopting them in the second book.
Throughout both stories, Liza Tillerman is explained and fleshed out mainly through the memories of her children and her mother, especially an essay of Dicey's. She ran away with her boyfriend but refused to marry him after seeing what marriage had done to her mother, but the relationship didn't last. Sammy wasn't even born when his father abandoned the family, and Liza struggled to raise four children on her own with very little money.
Her mental state is often called into question due to her course of action, it's debated whether or not she was always a little unstable or whether a hard life and years of poverty finally broke her. Sometime after leaving her children she wound up in the mental ward of a hospital, catatonic and with her long hair chopped short. She goes on for months like this, unresponsive to even the best of treatment, until she finally dies. And to make her story worse, we're given a look at the troubled Tillerman household in her brother Bullet's story. John Tillerman was authoritative and abusive, Abigail then was nothing like the Gram we know now; silent and subservient even when she didn't want to be, simply because back then marriage meant obedience for the woman. Bullet himself died in the Vietnam War, sometime after Liza left home.
This brings me to the oldest boy, John Jr. We're told he managed to get out and build a life for himself, and in Dicey's Song there's mention made of a wedding announcement and the possibility of looking for the missing Uncle John. But sadly, this arc never goes anywhere; the next stories in the series focus on Bullet and then on Dicey's friend Wilhemina and her boyfriend Jeff, followed by the story of James and Sammy's fruitless search for the children's father. The last story in the series returns its focus to Dicey, now grown and struggling to manage a boat-building business despite lacking a full college education. The series ends on a somewhat positive note with her and Jeff's engagement, which I have mixed feelings about.
On one hand, Dicey and Jeff's relationship was promising and there was a field of interesting material, both having some issues due to rough childhoods (Dicey growing up poor and being abandoned, Jeff's distant father and flaky mother giving him self-esteem issues). But I feel the books didn't explore these things as much as they could have, so the engagement seemed a bit abrupt and mainly a way for Dicey to stay on her feet with Jeff's help. Granted, some marriages are made for convenience, but I felt it would have worked slightly better with more shown development for the relationship.
Friends of the Tillermans
Fortunately, Jeff as a character isn't lacking in development and depth. As I mentioned before, he lived with a distant father and a flaky mother, until his mother walked out on the family. For years he believed his father was just too cold and unfeeling to understand someone as giving and sunny as his mother Melody, who wrote him letters and doted on him like crazy. This belief was only furthered by a visit to his mother's family home in South Carolina, where she and her relatives fussed over him and taught him all about his heritage as a Boudrault (his mother's maiden name). He's so blinded by love and joy that he puts Melody even further up on her pedestal, writing constantly and sending her a beautiful scarf for Christmas. Even when she doesn't write back or send him a present, he believes in her love.
His belief, unfortunately, is shattered when he comes back for another summer visit. Melody is markedly different, more interested in her new boyfriend than her son, and the Boudrault home is colder and more stern than he remembers, partially due to grandmother Gambo having suffered a stroke and being less open to spending time with the boy. He eventually confronts Melody and is devastated to realize she doesn't care about him. She'd wanted a girl, and if he'd been one she would have taken him with her and loved him. Devastated, Jeff gets on a rowboat and hides out on a remote island. When he returns home, he's depressed and broken to the point of failing grades until his father decides it's time to move.
Naturally they end up in Anapolis/Crisfield, where Jeff repeats 8th grade and begins to slowly open up again, meeting two good friends and finally the Tillermans. His life becomes entwined with theirs, and when Melody makes a surprise appearance to try to reclaim him he angrily tells her he'd rather stay with his father, whom he's slowly built a stronger relationship with over time. He even tells her he hates her, but by the end of the story he seems to have overcome that, simply accepting that Melody is who she is and that he's better off without her. He's happy with the life he's built in his new home.
This ties in very nicely Dicey's Song, where Jeff becomes an important part of Dicey's life despite her own issues with reaching out to people. Reaching out is an important theme of this particular book, but it subtly worked its way into A Solitary Blue as well, where Jeff learned to open his heart and trust again after being hurt by Melody.
A Solitary Blue manages to subvert the usual "caring hippie mother, stern logical father" tropes I've seen in other media. Melody is obsessed with saving the world, but cares little for her own family. She plays the gentle devoted mother when it suits her, but doesn't hesitate to abandon Jeff for her own interests and pursuits. She's manipulative, tries to poison Jeff against his father by claiming his need for routines and peace makes him unfit to raise a child. She seems incapable of understanding the world beyond something that needs her to rescue it.
Horace, on the other hand, comes into the story with a reputation as cold and reserved, from Jeff's point of view. He accepts the fact that with Melody gone some changes will need to be made, but is still stoic to the point where Jeff decides he must become self-reliant so as not to disturb him. But deep down, Horace Greene is more caring than Jeff let himself think and the two form a stronger bond following Melody's betrayal. Together with Horace's friend Brother Thomas, they form a new kind of family and eventually move to Crisfield so Jeff can start over.
This saga does a wonderful job of fleshing out characters from main to secondary, yet it disappoints me to know there was never a book for Maybeth or Abigail. James and Sammy shared their story in Sons From Afar, James dealing with his growing pains while Sammy learned not to coast through life on popularity alone and the two going on a search for their missing father, Francis Verricker. We're even given some insight to Verricker, the deadbeat who abandoned his girlfriend and their children, so even he comes off as less a horrible villain and more a man who lost his way and never cared to find it again.
But Maybeth? I wonder if Voigt will ever write her story. Seventeen Against the Dealer was the final installment, but sagas have added installments post-ending before. Maybeth is important to the whole family, as she goes from a scared little girl to an American version of the Japanese Yamato Nadeshiko trope. Sweet and domestic, but with an iron core. She finds her outlet in playing the piano, she works hard to keep her grades up, she develops an affinity for cooking and baking. She attracts many admirers, and at one point Sammy and James even debate the possibility of her marrying her piano teacher, a man in his twenties who looks older due to obesity. He could look after her, and she could help him stay on the right track regarding his health. But nothing ever comes of this storyline.
I hope someday Voigt or a writer she trusts will craft Maybeth's story. I would love to see in detail her growth from a scared little girl to a determined but gentle woman.
And finally, there's Wilhemina "Mina" Smiths, an African-American girl introduced as Dicey's first friend at her new school. Dicey's Song presents her as proudly outspoken and popular, a girl who does and says what she wants and loves herself, but late in the story she admits some of her insecurities to Dicey. She's black, and despite the books not seeming to be set in a particular decade, prejudices can still ride tall in the saddle even today.
In Mina's own story, Come A Stranger, we learn that she has indeed faced prejudice based on the color of her skin. The daughter of a minister, she's awarded a scholarship to an exclusive dance camp full of white girls. The first summer is so good to her that she comes home with an attitude of superiority that alienates her friends; this later comes back to haunt her when she's told she'll never be a classical dancer. While she's told it's because puberty has made her awkward and clumsy, she knows it's because the instructor can't see past her race.
Mina, heartbroken, finds solace in her friendship with Tamer Shipp, the new minister at her family's church. (Tamer also made an appearance in The Runner as the partner of a reluctant Bullet Tillerman.) Though he's married with a family, Mina can't help having feelings for Shipp and focuses all her passion on their friendship, all the while rediscovering her identity as a black girl and learning to embrace herself as she is. We bear witness to her difficult road to the self-confident social butterfly we meet in Dicey's Song.
While these books can be read as standalone stories, enough ties them together that eventually, you'll want to read the entire series solely for the curiosity of how certain things came to be. Names like Will and Eunice and Windy, who are they? Homecoming lets us meet them. Abigail threw her telephone through the company's window when she received the call that Bullet died in Vietnam, The Runner lets us see it happen. Jeff and Mina and what their lives were before meeting Dicey. How smart cookie James and stubborn Sammy fare as teenagers. Dicey striking out on her own without realizing just how difficult a road she has ahead of her.
There's also a movie version of Homecoming, starring the late Anne Bancroft as Abigail. While it cuts out a good chunk of events from the book (the childrens' meeting with the two hippies and the boys on the sailboat, James's attempted theft of Stewart's money, the unpleasant Mr. Rudyard, Will and Claire's traveling circus) it still tells the story wonderfully. The actors and actresses do an excellent job with the roles, and the soundtrack is well-suited to the setting. It's worth watching if you're a fan of the books, and my hope is that someday they adapt the rest of the series to film, or at least Dicey's Song.
The Tillerman Cycle will forever remain among my favorite works of fiction. Voigt tells great stories with fleshed-out characters and arcs, aside from my quibble about John Jr. never being found or contacted. But that only leads me to hope that someday, that story will be written. Perhaps that will be Maybeth's story. Only time will tell.