Recently I’ve been tracking down and re-reading books that I remember from my childhood. So far, I’ve read Harriet the spy by Louise Fitzhugh, Who, Sir? Me, Sir? by K.M. Peyton, and The monster garden by Vivien Alcock. I was relieved to discover that they were all as good – or better- as I’d remembered them being. My most recent re-reading has been Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming, the first of seven books in the Tillerman cycle.
Homecoming follows the journey of the four Tillerman siblings – thirteen-year-old Dicey, James, aged ten, Maybeth (nine) and Sammy (six) – after their mother abandons them in their car in a parking lot and they have to make their way across Connecticut on eleven dollars and fifty cents to find their only other known relative, their Aunt Cilla, who they’ve never met. It’s a cracking premise for a story, one that stayed in my mind despite the fact that I first read the book about twenty years ago.
The first half of the story plays out as a survival yarn – how will they find their route, get enough food to eat, where will they shelter? They’ve been brought up by the ocean, and are proficient in outdoor skills like fishing and starting a fire. It’s like a modern Robinson Crusoe, but as it involves children in an urban environment, their biggest problem is not physical survival but how to avoid attracting the suspicion of authority figures. They do not approach the police because they are afraid they will be removed from their mother and split up to go into foster care. As it turns out, they are right to be wary of adults: one man attempts to kidnap them. Other adults, although respectable and well-intentioned, pose a less obvious, but no less real, threat. Which adults they should trust is the biggest decision they have to make, and one where instinct plays a big role.
The second half of the book is more emotionally involved. Their experiences have given them the confidence that they can survive, and now they are looking for something more than just a physical shelter – a home. They never stop believing that their mother loves them. But their father walked out on them just before Sammy was born, and now their mother has left them too. At one point, James asks Dicey whether this is their fault: are they the sort of children that people abandon? There are points in the story where they come close to abandoning each other, repeating the actions of their parents and grandparents across the generations. I didn’t realise (because I’m quite slow when it comes to literary themes) the significance of the name Tillerman until I read this section, where the word tiller is used repeatedly:
Dicey … watched the sail and the water ahead. She rested her hand lightly on the tiller, letting the boat tell her where it wanted to go. She sat alert, her body tuned to that gentle pull on the tiller.
Boats, waves, water and wind: through the wood she felt them working for her. She was not directing, but accompanying them, turning them to her use. She didn’t work against them, but with them; and she made the boat do that too. It wasn’t power guiding the tiller, but purpose.
As with all journeys, the Tillermans have to be sure of their direction and their purpose if they are going to find a home.
This book is marketed as a ‘teen’ read, but there’s nothing in here that would be unsuitable for younger children. Equally, I loved this when re-reading it as an adult. It’s written in that clean, simple prose style that twentieth-century American authors did so well. Although it was published in 1981, it feels fresh and hasn’t dated.