The 1983 Newbery Medal Winner Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, like Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, is one of the Newbery award winners I have read and re-read it until my copy of the book is much the worse for the wear. I’ve loved and collected Voigt’s work for nearly twenty years, and she is not only one of my favourite young adult writers but also the one who most inspires me. As I work on the manuscript of my own young adult novel I often think of her, and aspire to her level of excellence, measuring my work against the standard set by hers. That the very fruitlessness of this aspiration leaves me ready to pound my head repeatedly against my keyboard is neither here nor there.
It speaks volumes about the quality of Voigt’s work that Dicey’s Song, though it is certainly very good, is not even what I would call the best of Voigt’s 30 books. Voigt is a consistently excellent writer and a number of her other books are comparable achievements: Homecoming, The Runner, A Solitary Blue, Tell Me if the Lovers Are Losers, and especially David and Jonathan are all at least as good if not better. A Solitary Blue in particular is one of Voigt’s books I love most. A Solitary Blue was a Newbery Honor Book in 1984, but lost the medal to Beverley Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw. I haven’t read Dear Mr. Henshaw yet, but it had better be damn good.
Dicey’s Song is the second of what became the Tillerman Cycle novels, a series of six novels about a family named the Tillermans. There are four books that involve Dicey and her three siblings James, Maybeth, and Sammy, one book about Dicey’s uncle, and two more focusing on the lives of two of Dicey’s friends. In Homecoming, 13-year-old Dicey and her three younger siblings are abandoned by their mother, Liza Tillerman. The four children spend a summer making their way (mostly on foot and without adult assistance or money) from Provincetown, Massachusetts to the grandmother they have never met in Maryland. Of course this is plot enough for two novels and so Dicey’s Song is much less eventful. The four children gradually settle into life at their grandmother’s farm and try to cope with their grief for their mother, who lies in a catatonic state in a Massachusetts hospital mental ward. They also deal with the usual strains and pains of growing up and their own individual problems: James’s suppression of his superior academic abilities so that he will be liked by his classmates, Maybeth’s difficulties in learning to read, and Sammy’s pitched battles with other boys at school.
Cynthia Voigt has said that Dicey is the child she wishes she had been and that Dicey’s grandmother, Abigail Tillerman, is the old lady she hopes to become. And indeed the two characters really do seem like older and younger versions of each other, with their fierce independence and intelligence. It’s to Voigt’s credit that these idealized versions of herself became their own selves and are so realistically and unsentimentally drawn. Dicey especially is an accomplishment. Growing up is an inherently a sporadic and uneven process, and although Dicey may have a more than adult level of determination and self-reliance, she is also very much just a kid, and even a backward one, in some other ways.
I’m trying to decide what I think about the fact that although Dicey, who is bored with school, is an excellent student in every class but home economics, where she refuses to make a more than minimal effort. Dicey thinks Miss Eversleigh isn’t “teaching anything Dicey needed to know, or wanted to know. Who wanted to memorize food groups or talk about seasonal buying or how to store food while conserving energy? Not Dicey.” Are we to believe that Dicey, who is (and has to be) very practical, does a fair share of the housework required for a family of five people and seems to love to work with her hands, truly would not see the value in knowing how to make nutritious meals or sew on buttons? This seems like a contrived conflict. Surely if Voigt wanted to have Dicey learn that there is value in a field of knowledge she’d scorned, another less practical subject would have been a better choice.
I did really like the way Voigt portrays the dynamics of the classroom and the hurly burly of the school hallways and playground (these are always unmistakably authentic in Voigt’s books, perhaps unsurprisingly, as she is a former teacher). Voigt also does quite well with her rendering of the Tillermans’ poverty. Abigail Tillerman had only made a subsistence living from her farm and in order to be able to keep the four children, she must apply for welfare benefits, and even then be careful with every penny. Between the Tillermans’ love for one another and their financial straits, this is a family that could have come perilously close to resembling the Waltons’. My rereading of the book for this review reminded me of both George H.W. Bush’s declaration that “America needs more family like the Waltons”, and Jay Leno’s surprisingly sharp rejoinder that “America already has too many families like the Waltons. They live in shacks and have no jobs and no health care.”
No, the Tillermans don’t scratch and hustle around and show a steel-spined independence and ingenuity and manage to stay off welfare. If anything, Dicey and Abigail learn that self-reliance and pride can be carried too far, and that reaching out to other people can involve having to learn to accept kindness in the form of material assistance. They take the government benefits as well as some tactful gifts from their friends, and though this outrages Abigail’s pride the children only care that it upsets her. Then they all scratch and hustle around to make and save a few dollars here and there to put food on the table and the fewest possible items of clothing on their backs, as well as those few luxuries that are really necessities: piano lessons for musically talented, shy Maybeth who is humiliated by her slowness in school, and a quietly beautiful dress for Dicey who hates that is she is physically maturing into a woman. Their poverty may circumscribe what they can do and how they must live, but only in the same way bad weather would. It doesn’t inform who they are or how they relate to one another. It’s simply an incidental fact of life to be dealt with so they can get on with doing the things they need and want to do, and there are definitely no ridiculously systematic good nights called along the hallways of their Chesapeake Bay farmhouse.
Voigt’s depiction of the eventual tragic fate of Liza Tillerman and of Dicey and her family’s resulting grief is one of the most heartbreaking passages I can think of in children’s or young adult’s fiction. The Tillermans, as always, get on with the business of life, but Voigt skilfully weaves their emotions into everything they do – into Dicey’s Christmas shopping, into Dicey and Abigail’s train ride home from the hospital in Massachusett’s, into Maybeth’s choice of music, into Sammy’s unintentionally and poignantly funny comments, into Abigail’s showing the children old family photographs for the first time - until we know just how deep and far reaching their loss is.
And much the same thing can be said of Voigt’s entire body of work. Her characters are always too proud and active and intellectually curious to merely emote or wallow. They keep moving through their lives, doing mostly ordinary things, but always learning a little more, doing a little more, becoming something slightly more. And because Voigt’s sensitive, moving work always feels so real, her readers get to feel they have done the same.