Homecoming (novel)

Homecoming (novel)

Infobox Book |
name = Homecoming

image_caption =
author = Cynthia Voigt
illustrator = Sharon Scotland
cover_artist = Mark Harrison
country = United States
language = English
series = Tillerman series
genre = Young adult novel
publisher = HarperCollins
pub_date = 1981
media_type = Print (Paperback)
pages = 480 pp (paperback edition)
isbn = ISBN 0 00 675427-9 (paperback edition)
followed_by = Dicey's Song

"Homecoming" is a young adult novel by American children's author Cynthia Voigt. It is the first of seven novels in the Tillerman Cycle.

Plot introduction

"Homecoming", set in the very early 1980s, tells the story of four siblings aged between six and thirteen, whose mother abandons them one summer afternoon in their car next to a Connecticut shopping mall during an aborted road trip to a family member in Bridgeport. Realizing that their mother is not coming back, and that they cannot go home (their father walked out before the youngest child was born), the children travel together, mostly on foot, trying to reach Bridgeport, Connecticut. There, they hope to find their missing mother at the home of a relative they have never met. The children find themselves on a journey that is emotional as well as literal - during their weeks on the road their adventures and the people they meet along the way help them to find out more about who they are and what is important to them, as well as to cope with the loss of their mother and to understand society's reaction to her poverty, isolation, mental illness and the fact that she was an unmarried mother of four.

Plot summary

For thirteen year old Dicey Tillerman, and her brothers James (10), Sammy (6) and sister Maybeth, (9), home has always been a little wooden house out in the dunes in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The children lived with their mother, and use her maiden name - Tillerman - because their parents never married. The family are poor and on the margins of society. Their father walked out on their mother just before Sammy was born, and only Dicey retains any memory of him. Their mother - whom the children call Momma - is a "sad, moon-faced woman", who worked herself too hard, physically and emotionally, to take care of her four children and make ends meet. The novel begins when the Tillerman children find themselves alone in their car, some miles from their home, in a shopping mall parking lot in Peewauket, Connecticut. The night before, Momma had bundled the kids into the car and driven them away from home, saying that they were going to visit their mother's Aunt Cilla in Bridgeport. At the Peewaulket mall, she parked the car and walked away, instructing the children to do what Dicey told them.

At 13, Dicey is used to being the responsible member of the family; she began caring for her younger siblings before age 7, when she was in charge of feeding and bathing baby Sammy. After waiting a few hours in the car, she begins to understand that something must have happened to Momma, and that she is not coming back to the car. She knows that Momma had intended to take them to Aunt Cilla's house, in Bridgeport, CT - an apparently wealthy relative that they have never met but hear from by letter every Christmas. Worried that going to the authorities might mean foster homes for herself and her siblings, Dicey decides that the four children must try to continue on to Aunt Cilla's house themselves, and that hopefully they will find their mother there. Whilst in their heart of hearts, Dicey and to some extent James do not believe she will be found there, they cling to the hope not least because this persuades six year old Sammy to cooperate on the difficult journey.

Dicey and her brothers and sister set off on foot, as they do not have enough money for a bus. Dicey, who quickly realizes that the journey is longer and more arduous than she had initially understood, takes on the role of a substitute parent, and becomes responsible for her siblings' welfare. She takes charge of their meager finances, which they need to buy food - she earns money, whenever necessary (including by washing windows in a store and carrying bags of groceries to cars for customers). Dicey comes to understand more fully how difficult things must have been for Momma, and how she must have slowly lost hope and, eventually, her sanity.

The children's journey is a long and arduous one, both physically and emotionally. They often go hungry. There are some frightening brushes with danger. When their money runs out in the center of New Haven, Dicey makes James, Maybeth and Sammy sleep under a bush in a park, while she watches over them. They are rescued by a college student, Windy, who feeds them and offers them shelter. The next day, Windy's roommate Stewart gives the children a ride in his car the rest of the way to Bridgeport, dropping them off outside what they hope is their Aunt Cilla's house, but without waiting to see what happens to them.

At Aunt Cilla's house in Bridgeport, Dicey and her family learn some uncomfortable truths: firstly, that their mother is not there, and that Aunt Cilla herself is recently deceased. Her middle-aged, unmarried daughter, Eunice - a devout Catholic remains living in her mother's house. Eunice, a fussy woman fond of TV dinners and collectible china figurines, is reluctant to be burdened with the Tillerman children. She had plans to enter a convent and taking in the homeless children will put an end to her dreams of becoming a nun. There are moral difficulties for Eunice, too. The children are not Catholic, and their parents were unmarried: both these facts cause Eunice problems. Reluctantly, with the advice of her "counsellor", a Catholic priest, she overcomes some of her initial objections, and takes them in. The priest, Father Joseph, contacts the local police who set about trying to trace Momma.

The younger children are put into a Catholic summer camp, whilst Dicey is made to stay home and help Eunice keep house. The atmosphere in the house is tense, as Eunice's reluctant guardianship forces the children to express overt gratitude, and to be quiet, polite and as unobtrusive as possible. Eunice is unequal to the task of raising or even dealing with the four children, and her obsession with expressing humility and gratitude is stifling. Dicey, recognizing that Cousin Eunice's home is probably not a good home for her family, starts to do odd jobs around town in addition to her household chores, to secretly earn money in case she needs to travel and find an alternative home.

Unfortunately, adding to the discomfort that they feel at Eunice's, Maybeth and Sammy do not fare well at summer camp. Sammy gets into fights and is unruly and difficult when at home. Maybeth, who is extremely shy and has considerable learning difficulties, becomes withdrawn. Cousin Eunice believes she is "retarded", and that Sammy is "unmanageable" and is "shaming" her. James, ostensibly doing well in his classes for gifted children, becomes distant from his family, more and more taking refuge in books.

Father Joseph suggests to Dicey that the best way forward is to split the family up: Sammy would go to a foster home, and Maybeth would go to a school for retarded children. The children's difficulties are compounded, when, after some weeks, the police locate the children's mother, who has been picked up in Boston, MA. The children are informed that their mother is completely catatonic in a state psychiatric hospital, without much chance of recovery. Any dream they harbored of being reunited with Momma and starting a new life with her is shattered.

Frightened for her family's fate, Dicey makes plans to leave Eunice's house alone, in search of a better home for her family. In one of Cousin Eunice's talks with Father Joseph, she overheard talk about a grandmother, her mother's mother, who apparently lives on a farm near Crisfield, Maryland. Dicey does not hold out much hope: her grandmother seems to have a reputation for being eccentric: she does not respond, for example, to letters about the children sent by Cousin Eunice and apparently screams when a local priest visits her to find out about the children's mother. However, Dicey does not believe there is an alternative to this last chance, and taking the money she has earned in secret, she leaves a note for her brothers and sister and tries to sneak away to see if the farm would be a good home for her family. James finds her out, however, and at the last minute, her family prevents her from going alone. The Tillerman family finds themselves on the road again in search of a home; this ends the first part of the novel.

The second journey, like the first, is hard and occasionally fraught with danger. Attempting to earn money picking fruit, the children find themselves nearly captured by their supposed employer, a Mr Rudyard, a threatening and emotionally unstable farmer who has apparently taken an unhealthy interest in pretty Maybeth. In a frantic attempt to escape his clutches, the children are helped by Will and Claire, owners of a traveling circus. Will and Claire drive the children to Crisfield, but unlike Windy and Stewart, offer to stick around to make sure that the children are safe. Against Will's advice and wishes, but with his understanding, Dicey decides she needs to go alone to her grandmother's farm to see for herself if it is safe for her family. Will tells Dicey to contact him if they ever need help.

Abigail Tillerman, the children's grandmother, has a reputation in the local town for extreme eccentricity. She lives entirely alone on a run-down farm without a phone some miles from Crisfield. Nevertheless, Dicey leaves her younger siblings in the center of Crisfield, and heads out on foot to her grandmother's farm.

Dicey's first meeting with her grandmother is not pleasant. The grandmother is not welcoming, and demands Dicey tell her what she thinks about death. She tells Dicey that the children cannot live there and that she can shelter them for one night only. However, Dicey quickly realizes that the farm would be a good place for her family, and that they have nowhere else to go. Dicey refuses to give up the opportunity for a permanent home. She and her family try to win their grandmother over by doing work around the farm. Dicey learns that her grandmother is frightened of becoming emotionally attached to the Tillerman children, in case she were to lose them as she lost her own children, one of whom died in Vietnam and the remaining two (one of these being Momma) left without staying in touch. She is also a proud woman and does not want to take the Social Security money she would need if she were to take on her four grandchildren. Abigail Tillerman feels that after a life of mistakes, and a life lived under the iron rule of her late husband, to whose will she subjugated her own after her marriage vows, she does not want to make more emotional attachments. Mrs Tillerman confesses to Dicey that Momma - Liza Tillerman - a gentle young woman, had left home with her itinerant boyfriend (the children's father). Mrs Tillerman had told Momma not to contact her until she was married; Momma, having seen how her parents' marriage destroyed their family, vowed never to marry and was thus barred from her childhood home. Mrs Tillerman bears the pain of this, and (she hints) other terrible mistakes and this is why she does not want to take in the children - she fears repeating the same failures.

The Tillerman children and their grandmother come to learn about each other and how they are similar and different, but are ultimately family. Eventually, the grandmother realizes, that not only does she care deeply for the four children, she can and will offer them a permanent home, despite the emotional and financial fears she has. The novel ends with Dicey feeling that she and her family have, at last, come home.

Characters in "Homecoming"

*Dicey Tillerman is the novel's main protagonist. Dicey is a thirteen-year-old girl who is unconcerned with external appearances - her haircut and clothes make her look like a boy. She displays a fierce determination to survive and keep her family together. Dicey, as the oldest child of a mentally unwell single mother, is used to playing the role of an adult in her family, but when their mother abandons them, Dicey steps into greater responsibility than she ever had. Dicey is tough, pragmatic, and suspicious of anyone outside of the circle formed by her immediate family, only taking help from others when she absolutely needs to do so. She is willing to do everything within her power and take any risks necessary to protect her siblings and keep them together.

*James Tillerman is the next eldest child. At 10, he is a thinker rather than a doer, and a natural loner- he loves books and learning, and likes to think out the answers to difficult questions. James did well academically although because of his family's social standing he did not have any friends at school. He respects those whom he believes are intelligent, sometimes without questioning their morals - when he falls and hurts his head during an overnight stay in a park, he pretends to be more injured than he really is so that the family can stay a few more days in the company of teenage runaways Lou and Edie, because he believes Lou is smart, even though Lou is a thief and a nihilist. When Sammy starts to emulate Lou by stealing food for the family, James supports his act, quoting Lou by saying that everyone must look out for himself and the only certainty in life is death. Later in the novel, James steals money himself and only listens to the rational explanations of Stewart, the student from whom he stole.

*Maybeth Tillerman is 9 years old, and very pretty with blonde hair and a gentle, accommodating personality. She is extremely quiet and shy, and is thought to have learning difficulties, although the novel does not go into details about what these might be. We learn only that she has been kept behind a year at school, that she worried her teachers who sent many notes home to her mother. The notes went unanswered, and it is believed by Maybeth's teachers that she cannot read or do simple mathematics. In reality, although slow, she is just far too shy at school. She is scared and distrustful of others, apart from her family. Maybeth demonstrates a mature, developed sense of emotional perceptiveness, and is capable of seeing through to the real character of people. She is a talented singer and looks like Momma physically. Dicey and James are afraid that Maybeth may have inherited her mother's tendency to depression and insanity.

*Sammy Tillerman is the youngest Tillerman. He is a robust child, who had problems with discipline at school, often getting into fights when the other children taunted him about his "crazy" mother or lack of a father. Sammy is not an intellectual and prefers physical activity, he is brave and very loyal to his family. Of all the Tillermans, he is most affected by his mother's sudden disappearance and has difficulty in accepting that she is not going to come back to them. Sammy is capable of being recklessly happy, although the difficulties he has faced in his short life, and the trauma of losing his Momma, has dampened this side of his character. During the long journey, he is sometimes stubborn and sullen.

*Momma The Tillerman's mother. Momma features in the story mainly via the reminiscences and thoughts of the four children and Gram - she only appears in the novel once, briefly, at the very beginning, when she says goodbye to her children before abandoning them in the car. According to Gram, Momma was a gentle and quiet young woman who decided when she left home at the age of 21 never to marry, having learned from her parents that marriage leads to bitterness and lies. The images of Momma that are filtered through her children's and mother's memories paint a picture of a loving and beautiful woman, but one who is neither particularly reliable nor practical. There appears to have been an idealistic and almost reckless side to her character; she has four children by her itinerant, gambling boyfriend - with whom Dicey remembers her having "real fights", although the couple do not have the financial means or stability to bring them up. However, Momma truly does love all her children and gave them everything she had. When Momma becomes pregnant with Sammy, their fourth child, the children's father is angry about it and soon leaves her, (it is suggested) under legal duress as Dicey remembers a visit from the police following his absence. Momma struggles under the responsibility of raising her four children on her own, but eventually buckles under the pressure. Immediately prior to the events of the novel, Dicey recalls that Momma lost her job as a supermarket checker, and started to behave more and more erratically, going missing for hours on end and not speaking to the children.

*Gram is the children's maternal grandmother, although Dicey and her siblings had never heard anything about her and she did not know of them either. The children hear about her first through Cousin Eunice in Bridgeport, where they learn that Gram is considered extremely eccentric, even "crazy". When the children meet Gram for the first time, she is a widow, her husband John having died only a couple of years previously. Gram is enjoying her solitude and voluntary isolation after years of reining in her strong personality to accommodate her strict husband. Gram had always obeyed her husband even when she knew him to be wrong. Her inflexibility, it is inferred, helped to drive away her three children, John (who is apparently a lawyer somewhere in California), Liza (the children's mother, who ran away from home and refused to marry the father of her children) and Samuel ('Bullet'), who was killed in Vietnam. Gram, like Dicey, is fiercely independent and at first is not ready to accept responsibility for her four abandoned grandchildren because she fears the emotional attachments that this will bring, and also that she will repeat the same mistakes she made with her own children.

*Cousin Eunice is the only daughter of Aunt Cilla, their mother's aunt. Eunice is unmarried, virginal and a pious Catholic, whose life is governed by routine and what she terms "duty". Her greatest desire is to become a nun and enter a convent. Eunice is "silly", almost completely incapable of spontaneity and affection. Whilst she does take in the Tillerman children, she does so from a sense of "duty" and expects the children to show gratitude and to earn their keep through good behaviour, and, in Dicey's case, through taking on nearly all of the household chores.

Other characters include: Windy and Stewart, two college students who shelter, feed and help the Tillerman family for one night in New Haven. Stewart drives the children to Bridgeport but neither young man seems to care about what happens to them; Will Hawkins, the owner of a circus, and Claire, a dog trainer in the circus, who rescue and help the Tillermans, who both return to see if the Tillerman children are OK at their grandmother's house.

Major themes

Several major themes are explored in the novel:

*Belonging: The theme of belonging runs throughout the whole book. The children search for a home, a physical place where they can belong. They search for belonging within themselves, realising that they are stronger as a family and that, although they have different personalities, strengths and weaknesses, they belong together. The children also struggle to see where they belong in the wider world, in society.

*Breaking societal conventions: This theme is strongly linked, and often inseparable from, that of "Belonging". Because the Tillermans come from a non-traditional family (their parents remained unmarried, and their father left before the youngest child was born), they are to some degree on the margins of society. Dicey lies to the younger children, saying she remembers a wedding. At school, all the children are bullied because of their parentage: James and Dicey do not have friends, Sammy and Dicey get into fistfights. Cousin Eunice and her religious adviser similarly disapprove of their status and lack of religion: Dicey is told that she "must have another name". Gram is a woman who has deliberately removed herself from mainstream society, choosing to live alone and adopt "eccentric" behaviour, such as bare feet, and odd dress. Both Gram and (to a lesser extent) Dicey grow to realise that it is not possible to live in isolation. Gram accepts first her grandchildren and then the Welfare money necessary to help feed and clothe them. She takes charge of enrolling the children in local schools. Dicey accepts that she, too, will go to school and learn like a normal child. She learns at various points in the novel that she must accept outside help, or that she must rely on others rather than on just herself, if she is to survive.

Yet, at many points in the novel, breaking conventions is shown to elicit personal growth, or at least to help the characters survive a difficult situation, whereas following convention is shown to inhibit growth and harm characters. By breaking gender roles, Dicey is able to escape authority and look after her family. However, by her rigid adherence to habit, Cousin Eunice (who wants to literally clothe herself in a nun's habit) is unable to properly love the children, bound as she is by her ideas of "duty" and of doing what she believes the world to expect of her. Gram, too, has harmed herself and those around her by adhering to convention and to "duty": by sticking by her rigid husband even when she knows in her heart he is wrong, she has destroyed her family.

*Family as home The children learn the importance of families throughout the novel. Their "Homecoming" is a journey that leads them to a long-lost grandmother, the mother of their beloved - and now lost - Momma, and a key to unlocking their family history. They start to learn that families can be fragile, and that if they are not nurtured and protected, they can fall apart as Gram's family has. This is a theme that is explored in much more depth in the next novel in the Tillerman Cycle, Dicey's Song.


*Songs The Tillermans sing throughout the novel and songs has many meanings for them. It makes them feel safe, it cheers them up when everything seems to be against them, it helps them bond with other people, it helps them to remember Momma. They learn a song about remembrance and friendship from Stewart, one of their benefactors. Whilst at Eunice's the children, bound by lack of emotional freedom, do not sing, at Gram's their singing not only helps bond them together but also helps draw Gram into their circle.

*Honeysuckle When the Tillermans arrive at Gram's, honeysuckle covers her rundown home, choking it. While Gram is quick to appreciate the tenacity of the plant, James remarks that the plant is parasitic and destroys not only other vegetation but also threatens the structure of the house itself. The children, as part of a desperate war where the prize is a home, begin to remove the stubborn tendrils of honeysuckle from the house, letting in light. The honeysuckle symbolizes the stubbornness, the solitude, and the deliberate isolation in which Gram has cloaked herself for almost her entire life, choking her ability to express her emotions freely and destroying the fabric that holds her family together. The children's attempt to remove it symbolizes their role in her life of catalyzing her own growth and relinquishment of the past.


In her Afterword to the novel, Voight explains that although the Tillerman family and the events described are all fictional, the geography of the book is accurate. However, some of the places mentioned are either fictional or deliberately or unintentionally misnamed.

*Peewauket, Connecticut - this is the town in which the children are abandoned by Momma. Although no place with this name exists, there is a town near Stonington, Connecticut named "Pawcatuck" (pronounced Paw-kit-tuk, with the accent on the Paw), which is probably the place Voight refers to.

*Rockland State Park, Connecticut - there is a Rockland State Park, but it is ninety miles from the coast and so is not the park the children stay in for a few days after James hurts his head in a fall. This park is likely to be Rocky Neck State Park, which fits the description and location.

*Landing Neck Road, Crisfield, Maryland - whilst Crisfield is a real town and the descriptions of it appear accurate, there is no Landing Neck Road - this is almost definitely fictional, although there are run-down farms in the area Voight describes.

Homecoming in the Tillerman Cycle

This novel is the first in a seven-part series, known as the Tillerman Cycle. The novel introduces some of the main characters in the cycle, and refers to others, such as Bullet Tillerman and James Verricker. Apart from "Dicey's Song", which describes events immediately following "Homecoming", the Tillerman Cycle is not chronological. Each book in the series follows events in the lives of different characters introduced in "Dicey's Song" or "Homecoming". "Seventeen Against the Dealer" takes up events in Dicey's life when she is 21. "A Solitary Blue" concerns events in the life of Jeff Greene, a character introduced in "Dicey's Song" and a central figure in "Seventeen Against the Dealer". "The Runner" is about Samuel 'Bullet' Tillerman, the children's late uncle and Gram's son. "Sons from Afar" tells the story of James' and Sammy's search for the lost father, Francis Verricker. "Come a Stranger" describes events in the life of Mina, a character introduced in "Dicey's Song".

"Homecoming" can be seen as the first in a two-part series, which forms the basis for the explorations of character that occur throughout the rest of the Tillerman Cycle.

Release details

*1981, USA, Atheneum Publishers
*1984, UK, Collins
*1999, UK, Collins Modern Classics

Other Books in the Tillerman Cycle

*Dicey's Song
*A Solitary Blue
*The Runner
*Sons from Afar
*Come a Stranger
*Seventeen Against the Dealer

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