A Solitary Blue
(Tillerman Series #3)
I don’t know that Voigt would have been given the go-ahead to publish this had it been the first in the series (and chronologically parts of it pre-date the original), but I’m so glad that on the strength of the popular ‘Homecoming’ she was allowed to revisit and explore some of the characters in a less pitchable way. You can see the publishers going for a story pitched at adolescents about kids making an epic trek, fending for themselves across the US. But one about an introspective kid who visits his mum, and then makes his peace with his even more introspective Dad? “Only if it’s got the Tillermans in it, and we can sell it as a sequel.”
Well, it does have the Tillermans in it, but, in a real sense, only incidentally. Perhaps more like a DVD extra, where you have the fun of seeing some of the same incidents from earlier books from a different perspective. The focus, however, is elsewhere: Gram pops in for the briefest cameo about half-way through, and the rest of the family only here and there for the final third. And rather than Voigt thinking she has to amp things up to keep the punters in – maybe some car chases, high drama, soap-opera romance – she slows everything down, and makes her focus characters surprisingly non-demonstrative, and pares back the action to generally mundane activity. Joke was mid-way I thought I’d dip into ‘Homecoming’ to get some more context (which I don’t think I’d read before – I started the series with ‘Dicey’s Song’), and found I was more engaged/curious about getting back to James’ relatively ordinary story than on following the sensational events of the trek.
And that’s a triumph of ‘Solitary Blue’. Voigt really captures that everyone has their story, their own life shaping events, and whether or not they involve shouting or running, they can be just as poignant and powerful. There’s something of this in Lively’s Passing On, although there the mistake/irony of dismissing characters that look as bland as Jeff and the Professor is shown by having the reader aware that there are conventionally dramatic events in their lives despite the superficial drab appearance. Voigt goes well beyond this by evoking the potency of events that would largely go unnoticed. Aspergers was not such a well-known term when this book was written, but the Professor is wonderfully developed and in the Curious Incident family. Indeed, perhaps the central movement of the book is the reassessment of the characters of Jeff’s parents, where strengths become weaknesses and vice-versa. Perhaps Melody is played a bit too much as a villain (and interesting as a flawed representative of feminism and environmentalism), but it is telling and effective that she never has an inkling of what she’s missing (echoes of Lewis’ ‘The Great Divorce’, where characters have no idea of how small they’ve become).
One thing I love about some Voigt books (in the same way I love some of LeGuin’s) is that she gets some tricky concepts right – ones that may have tripped up otherwise able writers. In this series she deftly manages the bold (and usually unworkable) ‘no throwaway characters’ idea. Even great and nuanced books recognise that you have to have minor characters, and, sure, even here of course we have ‘throwaways’ like the nameless girl who leaves Jeff notes. But the series does a great job of conveying the richness and value of individuals, both in isolation and interaction. Although both aiming at a teenage audience (and, to be fair, having entirely different genre goals), the Tillerman series is in a different league (a different galaxy) for character insight than, for example, the Belgariad (sorry about the following extended comparison, but I just happened to recently revisit the first book in this series). While Eddings does create contrasting caricatures (x is HONEST, y is SNEAKY, z is MATERNAL etc.), he only gives the impression of insight, grooming his self-oriented readers’ egos by inviting them into the secrets adults unsuccessfully try to hide – generally about some marriage or romantic difficulty. It’s actually seductively deceptive: in moving beyond the childish idea that, for example, all marriages are happily-ever-after, that appearance matches reality, readers are invited to smugly feel they understand ‘the’ problem with x or y – as if it’s that simple. Moreover all the characters are so clearly mere bit players, entirely defined by and serving the egocentric world of Garion, the central character. In ‘Homecoming’ Voigt perhaps can’t help the way that some minor characters, similarly, do essentially serve some purpose for the major one/s – there is only so much room for coherent stories in the one book, so, for example, the circus characters are just a bit convenient. However rather than Voight doing the usual of hanging sequels on increasingly faint carbons of the popular original character, she relishes the chance to explore characters that were only touched on previously. Bravely she shelves the successful, popular, safe characters, and really brings home that it doesn’t lessen them to expand – now that there’s room in another book – others. Indeed, Dicey’s story, for example, only becomes richer when we are made to feel that she’s intersecting with equally nuanced and complex stories. ‘Rich tapestry’ is an awful cliché, but there really is some pretty wonderful material here ‘for those with eyes to see’ that their own worlds are full of people with their own magical, textured, sad, ludicrous, stark, whatever, stories.
Orson Scott Card, another undeniably able writer, really came to grief with this. Hats off to him for wanting to convey this idea – that it’s not all about one person (even another one of his messianic characters, in this case Ender). But ‘The Speaker for the Dead’, another sequel, was a dog’s breakfast for character (despite some killer scenes, particularly Ender’s first meeting with the family). Rather than show that people can be important and fascinating despite appearances – Card just brutally manipulates appearances. Rather than highlight unrecognised value, he makes character after character sensationally talented, even eon-shaking – which confirms the ugly (but popular) view that only a few freakishly gifted people matter. And all of these uncomfortably squeezed into this one book (not as bad as some of C. J. Cherryh’s or Donaldson’s (Gap) books where they don’t get that if you have ten ‘crucial’ things in a row, then none of them are really crucial ... but in the same category. And speaking of C.J. Cherryh, and of Voight getting right what some other able authors get wrong, compare the former’s appalling ‘Rusalka’ with the latter’s deft and poignant ‘Tree by Leaf’ for radically contrasting treatments of choice and destiny).
But maybe the very things I see as weaknesses may be strengths, and vice-versa. This might be less of a book for teenagers than a book adults want to recommend to teenagers. It powerfully captures nuances and insights adults see as crucial and often lacking in adolescents ... but that many adolescents might not yet be ready to take on: definitely not ready to be that interested in anyway. I relished this book at 46, but I really wonder if at 15 my reaction would have been much more along the lines of the amazon reviewer whose title was ‘I despise this book’. One of the gems in this excellent little review picks up on a key teenage outlook:
...The main flaw I found in this book was it had a terrible plot a young boy struggling to find himself, he has a mother who is a freeloading and loathsome character and the boy is attracted to a poor and ugly girl. I'm afraid as a fellow teenager I couldnt relate to any of this kids problems...
The adult is going, “but haven’t you just had a window into someone else’s world?” No, at this stage most readers (like a younger me) are only going to to relate to someone much like themself, or someone they may like to be with killer martial arts/magical/crime-solving etc. skills. This isn’t meant to be a judgement – in a real sense my middle-aged reaction to these books is no more or less valid: I think ‘I despise this book’ missed out on some wonderful things, but I miss out on some wonderful things by bringing my older perspective to Harry Potter or the Belgariad. (Another downside of adults recommending this book to teenagers is the plethora of what I assume are forced student reviews. At least the ‘I despise this book’ had some thought and personality; the majority of them are not reviews at all but plot summaries, and none of the authors seem to have heard of the term ‘spoiler’.)
I love the way Dicey is dismissed with the phrase ‘a poor and ugly girl’. Much of ‘Solitary Blue’ can stand alone, but the Tillerman interactions are really leaning on prior reading, and perhaps why I found the dénouement a bit less engaging than the rest of the book (although it was a nice touch just hinting at Brother Thomas’ crisis without delving into or resolving it, again hopefully just waking readers up to the central concept – everyone has their own story; it’s not as simple as you think. But probably just bugging many of them, “Why did you bother telling us that the priest is having some crisis of faith? What do you mean? Why does this matter? Big deal, he’s bringing in some cabbages – why are you telling us this??”). I dunno, some of the Tillerman bits seemed a bit flat – in this version they were fairly two dimensional/typecast, and odd that Jeff’s sudden disappearance and reappearance in their lives seemed to be barely noticed. Here we’re expected to already love Dicey, we’re not given much reason to do so within these pages. Moreover the climactic scene with Jeff’s mother might have been more realistic than, say, the confrontation between Elisabeth Bennett and Lady Catherine, but it was also less entertaining.
But I’d already relished so much of the core of the book that this is a minor criticism. For where I was at the time I read it, it was a cracker.