Come a Stranger
is the most positive book in the Tillerman Cycle (which, in a series that takes on abandonment, death, failure, racism, and emotional abuse of a couple different kinds, is maybe not saying a whole lot, although the themes of all the books involve growth and compassion and optimism and healing so that I never really noticed until this read-through how relentless
they are) — this is the book about a family that works from the very beginning, and with themes that involve an existing strength, and growth mediated by that strength (as opposed to, say, Dicey's Song
and Solitary Blue
, which are about fractured family that has to figure out how to work, and growth from what started as dysfunctionality).
This one, I think there are two major themes woven throughout the book. One is community: what does it mean to be part of a community? This is almost a background theme — if I were to tell you the major events that happened in the book, none of them would really shout out "Community!" And yet the strong, vibrant community Mina belongs to is so integral to this book that it wouldn't exist in the same way without it. The other books are about individuals; this one is about the individuals as part of a community where they all help one another, all lift one another up. There's no character like Miz Hunter in any of the other Tillerman books.
I mean, I've never read these books thematically before, and on this reading it jumped out to me that the first chapter is basically the thesis statement. In the first chapter we meet Miz Hunter, Kat, Kat's family, and the church where Mina sings in the choir. That's a lot of people that Mina is a part of — not just her family itself, though they're also a community unto themselves, but also friends, friends' families, a whole church community evoked — and a community that takes care of each other. The first chapter almost makes it explicit:
"People you don't know are strangers."
"Are you afraid of strangers?"
"There aren't any strangers I've noticed around here, are there?"
"No ma'am. My poppa, he doesn't let people stay strangers."
Poppa's little church didn't have a fancy altar, just a heavy wooden table with a fresh cloth on iton which the ladies had embroidered words and pictures. A silver cross stood up on top of that. They didn't have proper choir stalls, nor pews, except for half a doen somebody had picked up at a flea market sale in Cambridge… What happened was, whenever they were having a drive, saving up money for something particular, like more pews so the whole room could be filled with them and not be part pews and mostly folding chairs, something always came up. There would always be some family that needed the help, or some one person in some kind of need. The deacons would empty the church pockets to help out. Like Miz Hunter, when the church took a mortgage on the little house she lived in and rented it to her for what she could afford. Nobody minded that, and nobody seemed to miss the fancy touches.
Which brings me to the other major theme of this book: love.
This book is a little bit the counterpoint of Solitary Blue
, which was about finding a community one by one (and so is Dicey's Song
, for that matter), and about the damage that love does, both knowingly and unknowingly, and how to get beyond that damage. This book is about the next step: the responsibilities to one another in a community; and the positive side of love, how love shows us the way to our truest selves; and how those things interact. Mina loves Tamer Shipp, and that love shows itself in no destructive way, but constructively, in the way she helps Tamer's wife, and in the way that she finds Samuel Tillerman for him as a gift — but the real, true gift is the interaction between Gram and Tamer — it's not about Shipp himself, really. I don't know, I don't think I am making a whole lot of sense here; I just feel really strongly about this, okay? :)
But there's a minor theme (though more explicit) too, a theme of race and racism — and it's so interesting and awesome what Voigt did here: Runner
was all about what it looked like from Bullet's white, racist point of view, and that was a valuable discussion and viewpoint; well, here we see what it looks like from the other side. And I feel like Voigt just does it well — Mina thinking black everything is kind of lame, to the betrayal when Mina realizes how she's been set up as the token black at ballet camp (and, tangentially, she gets it so right how you can bounce around and then find the place where you belong — in my case also summer camp — and the relief and amazingness of it — and I didn't think about it until this time through, but just thinking about that memory being sullied by betrayal of some sort is just — my whole mind flinches from it), the swinging to considering racism in everything, including her of-course-I'm-not-racist
-but-I-don't-like-uppity-blacks teacher and also Dicey's reaction to her which is clearly (from Dicey's perspective in Song
) not race-related at all (that being said, when you look at it from Mina's point of view it looks pretty damning for Dicey for a while — I mean, what are you supposed to think when a person keeps ignoring your friendship overtures?). The conversations she has with Shipp and with her parents seem to get it right to me… the way her parents are just worried for her because it's hard to be a black woman. And I love the part where Shipp tells Mina that "colored" is a good word for what they are. ("They," in the end, meaning all humans.) Because, of course, it's the word Bullet used and Tamer rejected. And I side-eyed the part at ballet camp where Mina is cast as Tash, and then was surprised and pleased to find that (of course) Voigt was right there with us side-eyeing it too, with Kat calling it out explicitly.
I don't understand at all how Voigt is able to interweave all these themes among all the books and still find time to have things actually happen. I don't get it at all.
It's so interesting to me that the Tamer Shipp of this book is noticeably an older version of Tamer Shipp in Runner
. That is to say, he's not at all identical, he's clearly been through a lot and learned a lot and matured a lot (and changed his mind about some things, like the word "colored"), but still you can see the Tamer-who-was in him.
More quotes. This one is on the community theme:
Charlie and Isadora started telling stories about old relatives of their parents who had gone into nursing homes, or retired to places where there were a lot of old people gathered together. Mina didn't say anything, because her one living set of grandparents lived with her mother's brother in Georgia, and the grandparents who had died when she was still a baby had lived just around the corner. She thought of Miz Hunter, but didn't mention her either.
I really like the treatment of Mina's friend Kat, though I wouldn't have appreciated it when I was a kid (good thing I didn't read these books until I was an adult) -- I like that she's presented as not liking Narnia, and that's OK!
"And trying to make me different too, make me read books and listen to your music. And they're boring and dumb — the Narnia books. It's just pretend, fairy-tale stuff, with magic, and if I don't like them, you look at me as if I'm stupid. I'm not stupid."
I could go on and on about this book, but I think I'm going to post it since it's already taken forever for me to get this far.
Oh, okay, one more thing: I have never liked what we're told about Tamer's sermon on Miss LaValle's suicide attempt -- it has always struck me as rather victim-blamey. But on the other hand we're seeing all this filtered through Mina's eyes, and she doesn't know about the suicide at the time; afterwards Mina's mom says she thinks the sermon was about helping Miss LaValle even though she isn't part of their church, and not gossiping about it, which is not at all what I got from Mina's POV, so it is very possible this is a case of incomplete-POV rather than being as victim-blamey as it seems.
No, two more things. This time around I kinda shipped Mina and Tamer's son Samuel, not right then of course, but sometime far in the future when they've both grown up — it seems like Samuel has inherited his father's propensity for thinking about things, and I could totally see Mina and Samuel, as grownups, understanding each other in the same way that Tamer and Mina do, but without the barriers to a romantic relationship. Speaking of fic ideas :) (Would that be weird? I feel like the way Voigt has structured it, it wouldn't be weird.)