A Song of Second Chances: A Solitary Blue

Posted August 29, 2014 by Lory in reviews / 6 Comments

Cynthia Voigt, A Solitary Blue (1983)

I owe Cynthia Voigt an apology. When she won the Newbery Medal for Dicey’s Song in 1983, beating out my favorite book at the time (The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley), I retaliated by refusing to read it or any others in what came to be an acclaimed seven-book cycle about the Tillerman family and their friends. But when A Solitary Blue, the follow-up to Dicey’s Song, came again to my attention through the Phoenix Award list, I thought I would give it another chance after 30 years. And I found that the award committee has a point: this is a beautifully written, deeply affecting book, with much insight into the painful process of loving and accepting one another and ourselves, while knowing when and how to walk away from unhealthy relationships.
To be fair, I doubt I would have enjoyed or appreciated it as a teenager. At the time, McKinley’s thrilling tale of adventure and magic in the desert was exactly what I wanted, not a slowly-paced story about a boy abandoned by his mother and learning to understand and live with a distant father. So maybe it’s a good thing I waited until now.

As a parent myself, I was already engaged–to the point of anger–from the first page, when seven-year-old Jeff Greene reads a letter from his mother telling him that she has to leave him in order to help other people, and stifles his tears because his father, whom he calls The Professor, doesn’t like emotion. How could they do that to him? Wouldn’t he be completely messed up?

Over the course of the novel, we find out how they could do that to him: how Jeff’s mother, Melody, could be so selfish and self-deluded as to think she could pick up and drop a child at her own convenience, and how his father could deeply care for his son and yet be so ignorant of children’s needs as to neglect him almost to death. The Professor actually learns from his experiences, and his gradual growing into relationship with his son is moving and real. Melody, on the other hand, is basically pure evil: a modern-day witch holding out a poisoned apple of false love to Jeff. We gain insight into the way her twisted mind works, but not into how she got that way, or into some remnants of humanity in her that we might be able to sympathize with. This one-sidedness creates a flaw in what is otherwise a rich portrayal of character and emotion.

Of course, Jeff himself is the core of the novel, and as we live through his experiences (which do mess him up quite thoroughly), we grow to know and love him in his weakness and his strength. How he finds healing and redemption in the face of serious challenges, finding his way from desperate isolation to community, is a quietly compelling tale. The setting, which moves from Baltimore to South Carolina to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, comes to life through Voigt’s carefully crafted prose, and the natural world holds a strong presence in Jeff’s healing process.

Another element is his relationship with Dicey Tillerman, who comes into the story only near the end, another wounded soul struggling toward the light. Without any gooey sentimentality, it becomes clear that she is important to Jeff and that their friendship will develop further. Her story is more fully told in the earlier and later books in the cycle, which I’ll be sure to seek out now.

A Solitary Blue reminded me that real literature has no age limits. A book that is right for one person at age 14 may be right for another at age 44. Though we tend to want to label books by age or genre, or simply as being “not for me,” when we set aside our prejudices we can make some wonderful discoveries. This was one for me.

Classics Club List #2
2003 Phoenix Award Honor Book

A Song of Second Chances: A Solitary BlueA Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt
Published by Atheneum in 1983
Format: eBook from Library

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6 responses to “A Song of Second Chances: A Solitary Blue

  1. I loved the Tillerman series! My favourite is still the first one (Homecoming) but each one had a value independently. I liked the way that the background characters in earlier instalments (such as Jeff) were given stories of their own. It's such a well-written series – I'm sorry though that Dicey's Song beat out another book that you loved!

    • I always think it's silly that the winner of the Newbery gets so much attention anyway — as though there could really be one "best" book in a year. I'm over the pain now anyway. : )

  2. Great commentary.

    I wholeheartedly agree that there are books that I find to be brilliant now that I would not have appreciated even at age 30 years old (I am 48).

    Your story of how you avoided the book years ago and now decided to give it a try is neat.

    This sounds like a great character study though the early neglect of the main character may be a little difficult to take.

    • It was difficult — I wasn't sure I would ever be able to forgive the Professor after the first few chapters. He came through in the end though.

  3. Frankly I am suspicious of the whole Newbery process. If anything, the Newbery medal on the front of a book makes me more suspicious of a book than likely to read it. The whole process is flawed because rotten Katherine Paterson has won several. (I can't stand Katherine Paterson.)

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