My favorite place in the world when I was a kid was the basement children’s room of the town library. I even ended up working there in high school. I systematically read my way around the YA books on the perimeter of the room, going back to certain ones over and over. One of the series I revisited a few times was the Tillerman Cycle, a seven-novel series which starts with Homecoming (1981). There are many children’s books and YA novels that have not aged well, but Homecoming is one that resonates with me more than ever since I first re-read it as an adult last year. As the title suggests, this is a Quest story, though it is firmly grounded in reality.
Our questers are the four children of the Tillerman family, from Provincetown, Massachusetts. Dicey, the oldest at 13, is pragmatic, resourceful, and fiercely protective of the three younger kids. James, 11, is very bright, but not terribly empathetic. Maybeth is 7, extremely shy and quiet around strangers, but loving and musically gifted. And Sammy, at 6, is a ball of hurt, fierce energy. At the start of the novel, they have just been abandoned at a mall in eastern Connecticut by their mother. Although the word “depression” is never used once in the novel (seriously, I searched on my Kindle), Dicey’s recollections of her mother’s behavior in recent years make it abundantly clear that it plays a huge part:
“I think she got so worried about so many things, about money and about us, about what she could do to take care of us, about not being able to do anything to make things better, -I think it all piled up inside her so that she just quit. She felt so sad and sorry then, and lost-remember how she’d go outside and not come back for hours? I think she got lost outside those times, the way she was lost inside.”
After they realize that she is gone, Dicey takes charge and decides that they will travel, on foot, to their wealthy Aunt Cilla’s house in Bridgeport. They have never met her, but they know from Momma’s stories that she lives in a big, white house on the ocean. Perhaps Momma has gone there, and is waiting for them, she tells the younger ones. With very little food or money, they slowly make their way south along the Connecticut coast, camping in empty houses and parks. They often go hungry, but manage to scrape by, working for quarters, catching fish and clams, and occasionally stealing food. They eventually make it to Aunt Cilla’s house, only to discover that there is no big white mansion, Aunt Cilla is dead, and their only recourse is her unmarried daughter Eunice. Eunice is nervous, set in her ways, and entirely unequipped to deal with four homeless children suddenly showing up at her door.
Eunice resolves to take them in and care for them temporarily, but the threat that they will be split up into foster homes always looms. News about their mother solidifies their fears that things will never return to normal. When they learn that their maternal grandmother is still alive in the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland, Dicey decides she is their last best hope. Once again they hit the road in search of a home, any home. They do find her, but once again, things are not as expected. Their grandmother is an eccentric loner living in a rundown house, and greets them not with open arms, but with suspicion and reluctance. However, Dicey is nothing if not determined, and knowing that there is no place else to go, she does what she can to keep the family together and to make this strange new place into a home.
Dicey is far more resourceful and together at 13 than I was, though you gradually realize she was forced to grow up prematurely by her mother’s erratic behavior and their poverty, well before the novel begins. Two things keep her going: her drive to protect her siblings, and her love of the water and open space. She is happiest when near or on the water, which I identify with. The atmospherics and sense of place in the book are wonderful, and you can trace every step of their journey from town to town on a map. When I was younger, I remember thinking that the first half of the book moved too slow, with nothing much happening. However, the tension created by their uncertain future and setbacks is palpable, and you can see Dicey’s character being forged as a result of the struggle. It’s a sad, and somewhat dark story, but not without hope. This is definitely a book I can see myself returning to time after time.