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Young Adult Books

In Search of Father--and Themselves

January 30, 1988|MITZI MYERS | Myers teaches literature for young people at UCLA and at Scripps College, Claremont, and is writing a study of its development.

Sons From Afar by Cynthia Voigt (Atheneum: $13.95 hardcover; 214 pages)

Few contemporary writers for young people can be recommended as enthusiastically to adults as to their intended audience. Cynthia Voigt is definitely one. It's a pity that so fine a writer will be missed by many grown-ups who would enjoy her strong story lines, her sense of place and her wisdom about families, love and the meaning of life. This is Voigt's 12th book, and like many of its predecessors, it concerns the Tillerman family and those who touch their lives.

"Homecoming," Voigt's first book, established the themes and characters that continue to obsess their creator. An odyssey of children searching for a place and people to belong to, that novel saw the four abandoned Tillerman children, led by 13-year-old Dicey, trekking afoot down the East Coast to find their fierce old grandmother in Crisfield, Md. Voigt won the 1983 Newbery Medal for the novel's successor, "Dicey's Song," while another Tillerman story, "A Solitary Blue," was a 1984 Newbery Honor Book.

Filling Out a Canvas

Voigt has gone back in time to explore the life of Gram and her son Bullet, killed in Vietnam, years before Dicey, James, Sammy and Maybeth wound up on the doorstep of the run-down family farm. Each book further elaborates the author's sense of characters evolving through time, conditioned by their choices and by the places and people they love. Few sequels are as rich as the original story, but Voigt succeeds because she is filling out a canvas, not just repeating a plot. Although each book is satisfying in itself, the cumulative weight of the whole series gives the body of her work remarkable depth.

Voigt's devoted fans will be eager to find out what James and Sammy are up to six years after they found their new home. Readers just meeting the Tillermans will want to go back and find out more about this very real, quirky family.

James, the thinker at 10, and Sammy, a rambunctious doer at 6, are older now, yet also recognizably themselves. The mother who abandoned them died in a mental institution, but as the boys mature, they grow more curious about the mysterious father who never married her and who deserted her and them.

How will they know how to grow into men unless they find their father model? What was he really like? Can they track him down? What will their search reveal about him and, more important, about themselves?

Voigt is the antithesis of sentimental, but the lost-child motif pervades her grittily realistic novels. And she knows how to endow her richly detailed representations of everyday life with archetypal motifs and mythic resonance. The boys' search for Francis Verricker, merchant seaman, is an adventurous detective story leading them into seamy dives and rough fights, but it also invokes Daedalus and Icarus, Apollo and Phaeton, and Shakespeare's "Full fathom five thy father lies."

Dork and Athlete

James is the intellectual dork and Sammy the golden athlete, and the story juxtaposes their contrasting points of view. They get on each other's nerves, but they also love one another deeply. Although their search almost gets them beaten to death, they never find Verricker, the charming, lying cheat, though they learn plenty about him, good and bad. (He does appear in Voigt's earlier "The Runner.")

But they do find themselves, and more deeply than ever before, they understand their kinship and their difference, their abiding love for each other and for their surviving family.

Discovering how he is like and unlike his missing father, like and unlike his brother, each boy begins to discover who he really is and what really matters. James, who so desperately wanted a father's guidance, recognizes what the bolder Sammy has always known: "You can only be what you are, whatever that is."

As does all Voigt's work, the book clearly affirms family ties and the pressure of the past on the present. Like the wise and testy old Gram, the boys and the reader learn that "There were seasons of your life . . . when remembering lay like winter on your spirit; but there were also seasons when remembering rose in your heart like a summer sun."

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