Like a fairy tale, Dicey's Song features insanity and orphans, but that's where the similarities end. We're never told exactly what Dicey's song actually is, but one suspects that it's a dirge, or one of the many murder ballads Jeff Greene sings. There's certainly a pall over the story, and not just the heavy Chesapeake sky Cynthia Voigt describes so vividly through each season.
This novel is the second in the 7-volume Tillerman Cycle, though it's the central volume and can be read on its own. The other books are about people introduced here, except Homecoming which covers the events immediately leading up to Dicey's Song, but which can be read out of order.
Dicey Tillerman is about to enter eighth grade when she shows up at Gram's farm in Maryland with her brothers James and Sammy and her sister Maybeth. She's been taking care of her younger siblings ever since Momma began to slip into madness, and it's both easy for her and difficult to relinquish responsibility to her grandmother.
The kids each deal with their mother's absence differently. Dicey retreats inside herself, Maybeth does even poorer in school, James is James, and Sammy tries staying out of fights before he reverts back to looking for them. Dicey has the added difficulty of puberty, which Voigt deals with straightforwardly and humorously.
Eventually the kids begin to make friends, usually with people as strange as they are, and to understand and love Gram, the strangest of all. This is truly a novel of eccentric characters, but eccentric in the right way: Voigt shows us how normal they are, how much they share in the same trials and joys as everyone else, by first showing us what's most noticeable: their oddities.
By the end of the novel, readers are prepared for the tragedy that ensues, and also for the sad yet hopeful response of the book's protagonists. Voigt shows us who they really are from the outside in, helping us to know them as we would get to know anyone in real life. And Dicey's Song is real life, with all its confusion, death, humor, and unexpectedness.
The true strength of the novel as a character study is that we don't get any of the tired tropes that make so much modern literature so bad. Dicey is never told to look inside herself for answers, no one summons inner strength, and there are no escapes from reality. Instead, the characters learn to eschew selfishness, help each other, and allow themselves to be helped.
Like many Newbery Medal winners, it's difficult to determine just who Dicey's Song is for. The Newbery is supposedly for kids up to age fourteen, but many of the titles seem intended for an older audience. Because Dicey and her best friend Mina are developing adult bodies, because death and absentee fathers are major themes, because the writing is fairly complex, this seems like a better choice for middle and high school students than anyone younger.
Plenty of novels for young people are well-written, plenty are poignant, and plenty are subdued and even gloomy. Few are all of the above, beautiful the way storm-heavy skies are beautiful and threatening. Dicey's Song is a breathtaking, lovely book, and one just as suitable for adults (perhaps more so) as for the younger readers for which it is intended. Highly recommended.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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