Hard Religious Questions in Knee-Knock Rise and Tuck EverlastingJoseph O. Milner
Natalie Babbitts's books are charming. They are fresh and gnome-like. But though she is seen as a teller of spritely, whimsical tales that are especially loved by young students, her books reflect a philosophical brooding over some deep religious questions that are particularly important to adolescents. Two of her books, Knee-Knock Rise and Tuck Everlasting, seem to be probing difficult questions with a skeptical attitude not unlike that found in the works of two literary scourges of religion, Kurt Vonnegut and Wallace Stevens.
Knee-Knock Rise explores the question of fabricated religion much as does Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. In his terse, funny novel of holocaust-producing science and South-Sea-Island religion, Vonnegut scrutinizes these two contending "saviors of mankind." He shows how the Bokononist religion, which McCabe and Johnson have concocted, is richly enough embroidered with rite and dogma to offer the impoverished natives a measure of happiness. The men make this faith all the more alluring and meaningful by establishing a wholly evil, secular government that persecutes those who adhere to the Bokonist faith. Thus, with a vital ritual and a strong web of belief, even a meager existence seems acceptable to the islanders. Vonnegut adds a further dimension to his religious questions when, having experienced the frozen hell that science has created, Johnson/Bokonon admits that he wishes to end his earthly days by resting on the peak of Mount McCage, thumbing his nose at "you-know-who." A certain streak of affirmation seems to lie hidden in the traumatic refutation, but Vonnegut's questions about religion are more undermining than affirming. He basically views Religion as a ghost created by humans to soothe their fear of facing the void without a belief system.
Natalie Babbitt approaches the question of fabrication much more indirectly in Knee-Knock Rise, but her tale offers a similar note of skepticism about such belief systems while at the same time it acknowledges most humans' deep need for such supra-rational modes. Like the poverty of Vonnegut's island, the life around the rise is flat and without vitality. So, the mountain, though not large, takes on size in this lackluster environment: it arouses interest; it spawns festivals; it instills fears; it engenders superstitions. This mountain, which Egan early on suggests is not so remarkable, is, with its howling god, the only jolt to the sameness that could otherwise engulf the townsfolk. All believe in the beast's being, and they daily celebrate its power over them. They are abject before its power, yet use it to create a rich fabric of rite that knits their corporate lives together. Their faith and fealty also serve to bring the town great note and multitudes of tourists -- psychic and material reinforcers for all of their activity. Nor is the belief system spun out of nothingness. The rise has a very special shape. The ominous mist appears irregularly. The accompanying howl has a chilling note of doom attached to it. All are clear signs that a palpable something exists above the townsfolk. Babbitt's myth has as much reason for its existence as do most.
Babbitt's hero, however, is at the age of quest and question, and through foolish pride he eventually stumbles upon that sanctuary, and, with the aid of his asocial, philosophical uncle, finds the rational, natural explanation of what had seemed irrational and supernatural. He (and Babbitt as well) is thus stuck with the dilemma of what to do with this new-found knowledge. With Uncle Ott as his mentor, he grows to new heights; he realizes that, for most people, factual truth and knowledge are less necessary than belief. So, he leaves Instep with its Megrimum intact.
Thus Babbitt and Vonnegut tentatively reinstate myth and fancy for all but the most skeptical. But they are nevertheless clear that no matter how productive the religious practice, the fabric of faith is spun out of man-made yarns: the Bokononist's faith is the sheer creation of McCabe and Johnson and the Megrimum Myth, of the Instep townsfolk. So though most folk need a religion that works, Babbitt allows her stronger characters (Ott and Egan) to dwell at this higher level of myth consciousness, just as Vonnegut allows Johnson and McCabe to benignly fashion a religion for the natives. She projects, then, a kind of post-modernist view of reality that suggests that one myth is as good as the rest, that all realities are myth, that the "order of things" is one imposed by the mind. So though fabrication is celebrated, it remains fabrication for deliverance's sake, and such self-consciousness eats away the foundations of belief. Thus, though the book's epilogue, "facts are the barren branches on which we hang the dear, obscuring foliage of our dreams," suggests the bleak quality of mere facts, the preciousness of dreams is sadly undercut by the certainty that their obscuring nature is a necessary feature of the process.
Tuck Everlasting takes a rather different tact on religion. In this amazingly economical tale, Babbitt deals with religion's basic promise of eternal life by standing the idea on its head very much in the manner of Wallace Stevens' short and remarkable poem, "The Good Man Has No Shape." Stevens' poem on religion's contentious role in the rise of Man uses a counterlever, ironic structure wherein he cloaks the tale of the slowly unfolding role of Man as Savior in the garb of the Jesus story. He has his good Man betrayed, tried, crucified, mocked by the anti-humanist believers, and by inference resurrected through the power of his human imagination. He thus establishes poetry as the "Necessary Angel" and puts the enemy to rout by answering its "no eternal life" jibes with a humanist resurrection story of his own.
Natalie Babbitt is working in much the same territory in that she takes the basic, haunting question -- if a man die, shall he live again? -- and reverses it to ask, if a man were not to die, could he truly live. In dramatizing her unexpected response to this religious question, she uses the seemingly ordinary Tuck family and their "Savior" Winnie and plays them off against a loose version of the Biblical story. The book's dynamic is the Tucks' dual burden of not only enduring the pain of everlasting life but protecting all mankind from gaining the knowledge that such an existence is possible.
The beginnings of the ironic reversal lie in the Tucks' protectionist role that is contrary to that of Jesus and his followers who expended themselves trying to let all the world know of this eternal possibility. Moreover, as Winnie helps the Tucks, she serves as an ironic "savior," for she is only reluctantly released to distant yards, and life itself, by her timid, orderly family. Moreover, she only accidentally comes to see the truth of eternal life and must be mentored slowly into an understanding of her special role in guarding that precious secret.
The Yellow-Suited, Demonic presence, too, expresses the same ironic twist on the Christian story, for his evil purpose is to release (admittedly at high price) the secret of eternal life, rather than to war against that condition as does Satan. The irony is further advanced by Mae Tuck, who, in confronting his totally evil intentions, releases her life force against him in a death blow much like the evil Claggart received from speechless Billy Budd. She thus kills to protect man from the secret of eternal life, while Jesus had enlivened Lazarus to reveal His power over death. Perhaps the highest moment of irony begins to emerge when Mae Tuck lies in prison knowing that her failure to die when publicly executed (on an inverted L) will surely unveil the Tuck secret. This is a clear reversal of the fact that Jesus' death at the hands of the Romans allowed Him to demonstrate His everlasting nature. It is at this crisis moment that Winnie fully realizes her necessary role in the Tuck drama. She sees that she must take Mae's place in jail in order to protect the Tucks' rare knowledge. Thus she serves as an ironic substitute in that as a mortal she can perish (she will not, of course) whereas Mae cannot afford to fail at death before a crowd. The mortal subs for the immortal, while in the Bible the reverse is true. Winnie's not dying thus saves humanity by allowing us to die, whereas Jesus died that we should live eternally.
Natalie Babbitt has thus, through Tuck Everlasting, ironically banished the anxiety surrounding death and the concomitant hope for eternal life by making death life-giving. And in so doing she has made a sharp incursion into the heartland of religion by undercutting what Sigmund Freud, Norman O. Brown, and others see as its raison d'être.
Babbitt is a teller of spritely, quick tales that are clearly to be enjoyed primarily as spritely, quick tales. Like Twain, she has declared that her books do not teach serious lessons. But, lurking in her words and under her dark rocks, are Vonnegut's and Stevens' treacherous questions that shadow religion: Is it real? Does it overcome death?
Joe Milner is the past Chair of the NCTE Conference on English Education and a professor at Wake Forest University.