In Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, which is set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a twelve-year-old girl named Winnie Foster is dissatisfied at home in her little village of Treegap. She is tired of being cooped up and considers running away. One day, while wandering in the woods, she meets a boy named Jesse near a spring. Although Jesse looks to be about seventeen years old, he is in reality 104 years old. Jesse and his family, the Tucks, discovered by accident many years before that the waters from a spring in the wood grant eternal life. Winnie is quite taken with Jesse and his family, and when they leave she goes with them.
A man who has been pursuing the Tucks, having found out about the water, finds them with Winnie and informs her parents of her whereabouts. For her safe return to Treegap he asks the Fosters for the land that includes the spring, intending to sell the water for profit. He offers them a partnership in his plans, which include Winnie, whom he intends to have drink the
water as a public demonstration of its effectiveness. But the Tucks refuse, and Jesse’s mother hits the man on the head and kills him. She is arrested by the constable and found guilty of murder and sentenced to be executed.
Knowing she cannot die—and that this will become apparent when the constable tries to execute her—they break her out of jail. Winnie takes her place and the Tucks flee. But Jesse, who has fallen in love with Winnie, leaves a bottle of the magical water, and asks her to drink it at seventeen. He will come back, he tells her, and marry her, and they can be seventeen together for eternity.
Winnie accepts the water, but she never drinks it, and she lives her life as she otherwise would have. Many years later the Tucks return to Treegap, a town that has been transformed by the modern world. It is now a suburban metropolis; the woods are gone and the spring is covered by a housing development. While Treegap has changed, they have remained the same, still the age each was when he or she first drank the water.
Before leaving, they visit the town cemetery and find Winnie’s grave. She had died two years before. On her gravestone they read these words:
In Loving Memory
Winifred Foster Jackson
Both before and after I tell my students this story, I ask them: If you could take a pill that would keep you at the age you are forever, would you take it? Few, if any, of those who say yes the first time respond the same the second. The students who originally said they would drink the water almost always change their minds.
Why? What does this story reveal to us that we didn’t know before?
As readers, we are unalterably saddened at Winnie’s death, and yet we are forced to conclude that there was something present in her life that will forever be absent from the Tucks’. “That’s what us Tucks are,” says Pa Tuck. “Stuck so’s we can’t move on. We ain’t part of the wheel no more. Dropped off, Winnie. Left behind.”
Winnie’s life, on the other hand, precisely because it is limited, can be viewed as a complete whole. And by virtue of this, the story suggests, it has a meaning an incomplete story cannot have. She has lived a whole life, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. She has married and had children, and maybe even grandchildren. If her life could be told, we would see that it had a distinct setting, and that it was filled with characters—friends and family—and that the events considered together would resemble something like a plot.
Her life, in fact, was not just a life, but a story. And, like any story, it had a theme—an overarching pattern that gave it meaning. A story is a meaning-giving thing. Which is why we should read them―no matter how old we are.