If you’re looking for a YA heroine who breaks the mold, Dicey might as well go around smashing things with a hammer. She’s a 13-year-old girl who spent the summer leading her three younger siblings from Massachusetts to Maryland on foot after their mother abandoned them. She kept Sammy, James, and Maybeth alive on the way to Gram’s house in Crisfield, feeding them stale doughnuts and peanut butter, so don’t think she can’t hold her own in the big, bad world.
But Dicey’s not all toughness. Her actions are driven by worry about her family, and her identity is wrapped up in protecting her siblings. When Gram adopts her, she has to go back to school and attempt to be a normal teenager—you know, one who doesn't raise children. She claims not to want friends, like here in biology class:
There were thirty-seven kids in the class, so probably one person wouldn’t have a partner, and probably that would be her. That was okay, she liked working alone, she was used to it; but she wanted to be sure everybody knew that she didn’t care about not having a partner. (2.151)
As we’re sure you know by now, pretending you don’t care is a sure sign you actually do—a lot. We're betting that Dicey wants friends in a big way, but she's not quite sure how to make that happen. We'll realize throughout the novel that Dicey’s major challenge as a character is learning to reach out to others. It’s the life lesson we just can't wait for her to learn.
On top of it all, a boy likes Dicey. His name is Jeff, and he’s one of those shaggy, sensitive, Birkenstock-wearing types with a guitar. He hangs around after school every day and plays, and Dicey starts sneaking up on him like a timid squirrel. It’s a big deal for her to get close enough to another person to even listen to him play music, so when Jeff finally lets her know that he sees her, Dicey struggles with the interaction:
When he finished, he strummed a couple of chords. "Have a sit, kid."
Dicey shook her head and turned away. She heard the guitar begin another melody as she unlocked her bike and rode off downtown. (2.36-37)
A boy! Quick! Run for the hills! Or in this case, your after-school job. See, Dicey's gig at the store allows her to edge up against her feelings and then make a quick getaway when things get real. Jeff digs her, obviously, but Dicey’s way too skittish to even have a friend, let alone a boyfriend. And her job provides a convenient excuse. But hey, at least she's taking a step in the right direction, you know, talking to other humans and all.
You’d be a little preoccupied, too, if your siblings all had issues at school. Sammy’s oddly gone from fighting to being a perfect angel, Maybeth can’t read, and James is too much of a smarty-pants for the gifted class. At every step, Dicey wants to understand their needs and help them achieve them. Maybe a little bit too much. Just as Dicey’s having trouble reaching out to new friends, she’s having trouble letting go of her family, not that they're going anywhere.
See, all the Tillerman kids are trying to adapt to a new life filled with new peers. Because of what they’ve been through over the summer, they all feel like weirdos and outsiders to some extent. While normal kids worry about boys and bras, Dicey's worried about her mother and affording their next meal. As Dicey says, "James never had friends, none of us did really, on account of Momma and where we lived, and a whole lot of things" (4.155).
Enter Gram, the original town weirdo: "Gram wasn’t like other people, she was different, an oddball. A lot of people in town thought she was just plain crazy" (2.145). She may be an eccentric old lady, but she’s full of life lessons, like the best grandmothers are. She’s instrumental in teaching Dicey that you can both care and not care; simultaneously reach out and hold on. Dicey learns that being your own strange self doesn’t mean you have to be lonely. And being the oldest sibling doesn't make her responsible for her younger ones. At least, not anymore.
What Dicey wants more than anything is a family, which means stability and security not just for herself but for James, Maybeth, and Sammy. She was strong and brave enough to lead them to safety, but she still doesn’t feel safe enough to open herself up and make friends. So when Mina tells her, "You sure are a hard person to be friends with, Dicey Tillerman" (3.93), she hits the nail on the head.
As readers, we get frustrated with Dicey’s inability to bond with other human beings, but we also understand it: bravery thrust upon you by necessity, the kind Dicey had to summon when she was abandoned, requires you to put up your guard—especially if you’re responsible for the safety of others.
But over the course of the book, Dicey finally catches on to this whole reaching out thing. Once Gram has adopted them, she knows for sure she has a home, and she can relax in the knowledge that it’s okay to build a life in Crisfield. When Gram tells her the story of her grandfather and Dicey finally gets it, she becomes gleeful at the thought of calling Mina: "Dicey threw back her head and laughed. She didn’t know why, except the feelings inside her needed some expression" (7.168). The changes in Dicey’s body brought on by puberty are nothing compared to the crumbling of the walls around her heart. Yep, that was totally cheesy, and yep, we're being totally serious.Dicey Tillerman’s Timeline