Homecoming by Cynthia Voight is the story of four children on their own. The oldest, Dicey Tillerman who is still young enough to pass as a boy when she needs to, leads her three siblings on a cross country journey in search of a home. They must face this journey alone after their unstable mother abandons them in a car outside of a large shopping mall while on the way to the home of their great aunt. She never returns.
It’s clear that Dicey has been covering for their mother for some time. She immediately takes charge of the situation, keeping the younger children in line, dividing tasks between herself and her brother James who’s just a year or so younger than she is. Dicey hopes that their mother will return as soon as this latest spell is over, but she also fears that the police will find them and separate them. She wants her mother back, but even more than that she wants to keep her family together. So when it begins to get dark and her mother still has not returned, she decides to abandon the car and walk to their great aunt’s house, though it’s a trip that will take several weeks and they have just over ten dollars between them.
What follows is a terrific survival story. Ms. Voight knows what she is talking about here. The details of how the children survive, earn money, get food, find shelter and eventually find their great aunt’s home are completely realistic. (If you had to run away from home with only a few dollars to you name in 1981 when the book was written, this book could have been your field guide.) There are no flights of fancy here, no unexplained or surprise rescuers, no helpful coincidences that appear out of no where to save the day. Dicey is simply too determined to fail. Her siblings recognize this and stick to her side through thick and thin. She does not disappoint them.
Homecoming is more or less officially a young adult novel, but it should be seen as a young adult novel in the same sense that To Kill a Mockingbird is a young adult novel. Put a more sophisticated cover on it, take off the references to the Newberry Medal and you have a novel about children written for all audiences. Ms. Voight never talks down to her audience, never makes things easy for them, but she does write a compelling tale. All of the characters, even the minor ones, are as richly drawn as any you’ll find in an “adult” novel. Motivations are complicated here. People try to do the right thing by each other only to find both the giver and the receiver of charity are too complicated to make even the most generous act go smoothly. It’s not that no good deed goes unpunished, but no good deed is easy to swallow.
One thing that sets Homecoming above other novels like this is that once the children find a home, their great aunt’s house, they also find that it is not really what they were looking for. Most writers would end their stories at the doorstep of their destination with a happy and satisfying reunion. Ms. Voight could have done so and still had an excellent novel. Instead, Dicey, her sister and her brothers find they have such a difficult time fitting in that they must consider taking to the road again, this time to look for the grandmother they never knew, one whom their mother rarely had a kind word for.
Homecoming is the first of a series of six books about the Tillerman family. I don’t know how I managed to teach middle school English for almost 20 years and never read it, but I’m certainly glad one of my student book clubs finally gave it a chance. The girls who read it are glad they did, too. They plan on reading the next book later this month. I’m looking forward to it. Homecoming by Cynthia Voight comes with our highest recommendation.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. some years ago. Unfortunately, neither I nor my students ever got around to reading the second book in the series. That said, I still give Homecoming my highest recommendation.