Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick reads Judy Blume's 'Tiger Eyes', the story of 15-year-old Davey, who has a new hole in her shoes....and in her life.
It is the morning of the funeral and I am tearing my room apart, trying to find the right kind of shoes to wear. But all I come up with are my Adidas, which have holes in the toes, and a pair of my flip-flops.
Long ago, in a writing workshop far, far away, I seem to remember a certain teacher informing his charges that one should make sure to tell the entire story in the first sentence. I can't imagine he was speaking of this book in particular, but Tiger Eyes is a shining example of packing a major punch in under 30 words.
As the novel begins, Davey Wexler has just turned 15, and her father has just been killed — shot when two junkies held up the 7-Eleven he owns, which was filled with the beautiful drawings that were the last remnants of the artistic career he never pursued. Davey, her mother, and her younger brother Jason, are wholly shattered by his death — Davey most of all. After spending weeks in bed, not eating or washing her hair, she returns to the world of the living when school starts — then succumbs to a series of panic attacks that knock her out (literally) on a daily basis.
Into the breach step her Aunt Bitsy, her father's sister, and her Uncle Walter, who live in Los Alamos, where Walter works in the W (weapons) division at the famed Lab that developed the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (I thank this book for all Trivial Pursuit tournament "Fat Man and Little Boy!" wins.) After the doctor recommends a change of scene for Davey, the family relocates to Los Alamos for an unspecified period, which lengthens into a year-long visit after the store at home is vandalized.
Bitsy, who gives tours at the Bradbury Science Museum where the remnants of the bomb reside, is the kind of woman who wears a uniform to work because, as she says, "it makes her feel official," while Walter is the kind of man who hands his niece a bomb-shelter card her first month in the house. The Kronicks, who allow Davey to ride their (clearly "Kronick" labeled) bikes only as long as she wears a helmet, have strict views on anything Davey wants to do: Climbing in canyons ("You could wind up a vegetable!"), riding in hot air balloons ("It's beautiful to watch, but only a fool would actually participate"), driving ("Why rush?"), skiing ("You don't want to wind up a vegetable, do you?"), the aforementioned bomb shelter ("Russians...have an outstanding civil defense program. If they're attacked, chances are, they'll survive. I wish I could say the same for us").
But Davey, who had been spending her nights in bed clutching a bread knife for protection and her days smacking her head against the ground each time she faints, has an odd reaction to the sudden onslaught of stability and security: she starts to become her old, adventurous self again, because, on some level, she realizes that her life has weathered its own enormous bomb without a shelter, and she's still here. After begging off yet another family sightseeing tour ("But we had rest and relaxation scheduled for next week!" Bitsy cries) she goes off on a bike ride, climbs down into a canyon, and meets...WOLF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!....the tanned, inscrutable fellow hiker who hears her shouting "Daddy" to the empty canyon and thinks she's shouting for help.
Davey, still on the alert for maniacs, is not happy to be caught out in such a vulnerable position:
"So...I'm alone," I say, sounding bitchier by the minute. "Is there a law against that?" I am standing in front of the rock now. All I have to do is bend over, pick it up, and wham....
"No, but there should be," he says.
"Oh yeah....why?" I am having trouble following our conversation but I know it is best to keep him talking. The longer he talks the less likely that he'll attack. I read that somewhere.
"Who's going to help you if you need it?" he asks me.
And with that, Davey remembers something important — which is that, while being alone with a stranger can make you vulnerable, so can just being alone. This realization is hastened along by her extreme thirst, which has reached epic proportions since her climb down into the canyon at midday with zero provisions:
"A little," I tell him, licking my lips.
"You came into the canyon without a water bottle....Here...." he passes his to me. I am so relieved I feel like crying. I mean to take a quick swig, but once it's to my lips I can't stop. I drink and drink until he takes it from me.
"Easy," he says, "or you'll get sick."
I begin to relax. He's not out to get me after all.
"What's your name?" I ask him.
"You can call me Wolf."
"Is that a first name of a last name?"
"Either," he says.
"Oh." I can't think of anything else to say.
He stands, puts the water bottle back into his knapsack, stretches and says, "Okay, let's go."
"Go?" I should have let down my guard. "Where?"
"Back up," he says. "It's one o'clock. I've got an appointment at two."
"So, go," I tell him.
"You're going with me."
"Really!" I say.
"Guess again," I say.
"I'm not about to leave you down here by yourself. I'm not in the mood to be called by Search and Rescue later. I have other things to do."
"Search and Rescue?"
I think about the fourteen-year-old boy who was killed by a falling rock and about the woman who broke her leg and went into shock and I wonder if Wolf was called in then. But I don't ask him. Instead I say, "I'm tougher than I look."
"Sure you are. Let's go. I'm in a hurry."
"How do I know I can trust you?"
"You see anybody you can trust more?"
Life in Los Alamos is very different from Davey's life in Atlantic City, a brilliant mix of color and class on the edge of the ocean, where no one needs Search and Rescue anymore than they need proper boots to climb down into the canyon. By contrast, Los Alamos is flat and arid, rigidly divided along class lines that mimic those at the lab — meaning the kids whose parents are highest up are the grinds at school, any Hispanic kids are the offspring of the maintenance workers in the lab, and there are barely any black kids at all. (In Atlantic City, Davey's best friend, Lenaya, was black, and a budding scientist.) Davey, whose life with Walter puts her in the grind group but not of it, wishes that there were a group for people like her called "The Left-Overs."
But even as Davey starts to come back to life, the novel is bracketed by scenes from what happened the night her father died, each snapshot from the past appearing as Davey takes another stop forward into the present:
I walked behind the counter to where Dad was sitting at his easel and looked over his shoulder. "Very nice..." I said. "Especially the eyes. I wish I could draw like you."
"You can do other things."
"Oh yeah...like what?"
My father pretended to think that over. "You're very good at stacking the bread," he said.
"Thanks a lot!"
We both laughed. I hung my arms over his shoulders, from behind, and rested my face against his hair, which was soft and curly and smelled of salt water.
"So, where are you off to?" Dad asked.
"Oh, Hugh and I are going out."
"What time will you be back?"
"I'm not sure."
"An educated guess."
"Tell...eleven...something like that."
"Stay off the beach. It's not safe at night."
"I've already had that lecture."
"I just don't want you to get carried away and forget."
"I won't. I promise."
....Outside the sun was setting.
It's not only physical safety that her father is talking about — it's the fact that she was conceived under Atlantic City's Million Dollar Pier — her parents joke that she's their "Million Dollar Baby" — and that anything Davey gets up to with Hugh could conceivably derail her life as much as it did that of her parents. ("A waste of a life," Walter bitterly sneers one night about her father, ridiculing how his lack of planning put Davey and her family in its present circumstances.) But would planning ahead have done anything to help her father stay alive?
This is the question Davey asks after things have come to a boiling point with her and Walter and Bitsy. While Jason has taken on Bitsy and Walter's love of planning ahead (symbolized by the apron he wears while he and Bitsy make endless sheets of cookies) her mother has descended into a cocoon of pain medications, blotting out the entire world:
I face Mom and say, "Mom, please. I really want to take Drivers Ed. It's very important to me. All you have to do is sign the little green card."
Mom looks at me and we make eye contact for the first time in months. Then, just as she is about to speak, Walter says, "Statistics show that accidents, especially automobile accidents, are the leading cause of death among young people."
"Why go looking for trouble?" Bitsy says. She pours the batter into the cake pan and Jason pulls the oven door open for her.
"Mom...say something, will you?"
"Walter and Bitsy know what's best," Mom says.
"Since when...since when I'd like to know?...I'm sick of hearing how dangerous everything is...Dangerous...dangerous....dangerous....Stay out of the canyon, Davey...you could be hit by a falling rock. Don't forget your bicycle helmet, Davey...you could get hit by a car. No, you can't learn to ski, Davey....you might wind up a vegetable!" I am really yelling now.
"Davey, honey..." Mom begins and she reaches for me. But I pull away from her.
"Some people have lived up here so long they've forgotten what the real world is like," I shout. "and the idea of it scares the..."
"You can just stop it, right now," Walter says, before I have finished. He says it slowly, making every word count.
"You're a good one to talk," I tell him. "You're the one who's making the bombs. You're the one who's figuring out how to blow up the whole world. But you won't let me take Driver's Ed. A person can get killed crossing the street. A person can get killed minding his own store. Did you ever think of that?" I kick the wall and stomp out of the room. I am crying hard and my throat is sore.
Davey may realize that living as irresponsibly as her parents did wasn't the best idea, but she also is learning that if your whole life is built around trying to stave off death, taking up arms against unseen forces can make your life arid, a place where responsibility blots out possibility. ("I don't want to go through my life afraid, but I don't want to wind up like my father, either," Davey writes to Wolf. "...I think about that a lot, especially in this town, where so many people seem afraid. Does building bombs make them feel afraid...?")
Even after having re-gorged myself on YA Lit for the past year, Tiger Eyes remains my favorite book (except for "Jacob Have I Loved"!!!!!!!!) of all time, and I've been trying to figure out why. I know it has something to do with how many themes Blume managed to fit into the slim novel, and on how internal, adult and independent a level Davey's life is presented to us. (We get major flashbacks of the father's death, long conversations with Wolf in the canyon — but this must be the only teen novel in which the heroine stars in a production of Oklahoma! and the entirety is summed up in a paragraph.)
But I think it has something to do with the slow accrual of change, the fact that Davey comes from being too scared to sleep with anything but a bread knife to a girl who can face her father's death — not because of anything that has happened to her, but because of something that is in her.
After her mother refuses the proposal of a man at the Lab and decides to take the family home, Davey realizes this is true of her mother, too:
"It's time for us to leave," Mom says. "It's time for us to start making a life on our own. We're going home. We're going home to Atlantic City."
"No!" Bitsy says...."What about the children....They're secure here. You can't keep moving them around."
"I'm not going to," Mom says. "I'm taking them home."
"But Atlantic City...it's not safe...you, of all people, should realize that, Gwen."
"I can't let safety and security become the focus of my life," Mom says.
I can't believe how sure of herself my mother sounds. I want to stand up and cheer for her.
Everyone knows that if you worry about how how you'll die, you'll never enjoy being alive. But Davey learns something even more subtle: that although people think preparing for death is being responsible, it's also ducking a greater responsibility: one's responsibility to live.
Davey learns that herself the day she meets Wolf, and the day she starts to let her father go:
"Stop!" I tell myself. Stop thinking about that night. Concentrate on how good it feels to be alive. No matter what. Just to see the color of the sky, to smell the pine trees, to meet a stranger in the canyon.
I go to my room, tear a piece of paper from the yellow pad on my dressers and write one word. Alive. Then I tear off another piece and write Wolf.
Maybe the answer to the question lies in the shoes Davey finally settles on after teetering on her mother's borrowed heels at the funeral and then slipping down the into the canyon where she meets Wolf in her Adidas. She knows she'll never be the kind of person who is so afraid of what can happen to them they'll never go into the canyon at all, but she's also not ready to be like her parents were — stumbling and slipping down, then caught out without water or shelter when tragedy strikes. She's become the kind of person keeps around a pair of the hiking boots and canteen Wolf tells her to buy after escorting her out of the canyon when they first meet. They're sturdy, long-lasting, and strong, prepared to take on any situation — especially a walk into the unknown.
• • • • •
Hello my beauties! Once again, your ability to regard the vast, striated rock face of YA literature and zero in on the glittering fleck of the stratum in question amounds and astazes me. In this case, since the book was part of the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, we were a bit closer to the STRATUM than the FLECK in question ("Alice in Agony!" "Alice In-Between!" "One of the Alice Books!"), but who I am to judge? I am partial to the Witch series, myself. Thus, I am giving the prize to the first and most all-encompassing answer, which merely read: