When you’re reading Dicey’s Song, you almost get the feeling that Cynthia Voigt was Dicey, or at least knew someone very much like her. Which may actually be close to the truth. Voigt once lived in Maryland, after all, and she now lives on a remote island in Maine. She’s writing about her life here, to some extent. Dicey’s tough and tomboyish, but she’s never mean. When Dicey says, "I don’t know anything about boys, clothes, or having babies" (9.129), you get the feeling that Voigt is writing from experience—either her own, or maybe that of her teenage daughter. After all, you don’t go living on a remote island and driving a boat to the grocery store as an adult if you’re not tough as nails.
Readers could have trouble relating to a character as reserved as Dicey, so Voigt has to use every opportunity to get us to feel for her. We see through Dicey’s actions (for example, getting a job to give her siblings an allowance and Gram money for food) that she’s actually a very caring person, even if she has trouble relating to her peers. A compassionate stance toward the main character allows the author to create someone we like, someone we root for, and we need to root for our narrator in order to stick with her for an entire book.
The main character is 13 years old and in 8th grade, as is her friend Mina. Jeff, the guy who wants to be her boyfriend, is in 10th grade. Dicey’s dealing with problems common to junior-high students, like her developing body and growing awareness of who she is and what she wants. And if that's not enough to convince you that this is Young Adult Literature, well, maybe you'll trust the folks over at Newbery, who awarded this their famous Newbery medal for American literature for children.
Dicey’s Song is about nothing if not family. And boy, is there drama. When the book opens, she and her siblings have just walked and hitchhiked from Massachusetts to Maryland in search of a family member who will take them in. Gram, their maternal grandmother, adopts them, and they later have to deal with the death of their mother. We see the burial of her ashes in Gram’s front yard. At the end of the book, Gram pulls down family photos from the attic and begins to tell them about their mother and uncles as children, setting the stage for another book in the Tillerman Cycle.
Our heroine is awash in hormones as she deals with puberty. Bras? Boys? The horror. She’s also trying to figure out who she is, which she feels is changing. She’s been responsible for her siblings for a whole summer, and Gram has to tell her that it’s time to focus on herself. Part of this is learning to make friends as she prepares to enter high school. Sounds like coming-of-age to Shmoop.
Dicey's song? What song? We don't remember any singing from our main character, thank you very much.
Nevertheless, music plays a big role in the book:
But how does any of that relate to Dicey's own personal world? Let's ask the teen herself:
What Dicey was used to, she realized, was things being simple, like a song. You sang the words and the melody straight through. That was the way she had brought her family down here to Crisfield, singing straight through. (1.165)
Singing is what's gotten Dicey and her siblings through the mess they've had to endure. It's what brought them to Crisfield. So Dicey's song, whatever song it is, can be a symbol of her strength and perseverance. And when the going gets tough, the tough keep it simple.
Plus, if you think of songs as stories, which they are, this novel is obviously Dicey’s story. And as she overcomes each obstacle she encounters, she learns how to march to the beat of her own drummer. Yeah, her song’s definitely got good percussion.
In the last chapter of Dicey’s Song, Gram holds a makeshift funeral for Momma in the front yard. She’s there to comfort the children as they say goodbye to their mother, even though her heart is undoubtedly breaking at saying goodbye to her daughter. After the ashes are in the ground, Dicey gets her philosophy on. She looks up at the big, ancient tree and ponders the fact that there’s a wire holding the broken branches together:
If the wire weren’t there, Gram had told Dicey, the tree would spread out and split, broken apart by the weight of its own growth […] "That tree is like families," Gram had said, and Dicey, looking up now at its branches, wondered what, in that case, the wire was like. (12.3)
Well, in this case, the wire is Momma. She came from Gram and created Dicey, and now Gram and Dicey (and, of course, the rest of the Tillerman kids) are putting her to rest in the yard of her childhood home. So even though Momma broke up a family when she left her kids in the parking lot, she also created one when Gram took the kids in.
Because she is awesome and always knows what to do, Gram brings the grandkids inside and does two things: gives them permission to go up into the attic, and asks them to bring down the family photos. Voigt closes Dicey’s Song with a major family bonding moment, with the kids looking at snapshots while Gram tells them stories of their mother and uncles. Et voilà—Voigt introduces two characters, Gram’s sons John and Bullet, the latter of whom will get his own entry in the Tillerman Cycle (The Runner, or book four). Way to set up the next episode.
The Tillerman kids come from the sea and return to the sea. They’ve grown up in a cabin beside the ocean in Provincetown, MA, and they relocate to Gram’s old farmhouse on the Chesapeake Bay. Dicey seems to like it because it's near the water, with its "little waves and long tides" (Introduction.5), but the town of Crisfield itself is probably not as quiet as she'd like.
Nevertheless, it's got good people. Dicey and her siblings are able to make some friends and create their own small community, all of which begins at their home—Gram's house.
Gram’s farmhouse is old and battered, but it's just what they need. Sure, it may have this whole shabby chic vibe, thanks to Gram's continuing poverty, but to Dicey, it’s practically a wonderland: "Home: a home with plenty of room for the four children in the shabby farmhouse, room inside, room outside, and the kind of room within Gram too […] the kind of room that was what they really needed" (Introduction.3).
What really matters here are not the details of the run-down house, but the qualities of the people who live there. Gram’s heart is as expansive as the house, and that’s all the Tillerman kiddos really need.
The barn behind Gram’s house contains the sailboat, which makes it pretty much Dicey’s temple. She’s painting the outbuilding in the first chapter, as a way of both earning her keep and creating a shrine to her boat. : "…the barn was completely painted, top to bottom, all four sides, patched and painted and looking good" (1.2). Sprucing up the barn is a way for Dicey to put her stamp on her new home.
But the barn isn't the only place at Gram's that catches the Tillerman kids' eyes. The younger kids sneak up there one day when Dicey’s not looking, and she confronts James about it:
"I thought we lived here," James complained.
"We do," Dicey said. "but—" (4.20-21)
But what? It seems to Shmoop that Dicey still feels like they’re guests in Gram’s house, and that's why she's all for not going into the attic. And of course all that attic-is-forbidden stuff lets us know that this attic is probably a pretty important spot.
So at the end of the book, when Gram (now officially their guardian) suggests the boys go up to the attic and bring down the photo albums, the moment carries a ton of weight: the house is finally just as much theirs as it is hers, and they’re free to settle into all the rooms.
Dicey’s Song isn’t a tough read in terms of language or structure. It’s a straightforward narrative; there’s no jumping around in time or stream-of-consciousness writing. What may make it slightly challenging is its slow pace. The focus here is on human relationships and emotions, so don’t expect nonstop action. You may also wish you’d read Homecoming first to learn more about the Tillerman children’s journey and relationship with their mother, but that's not a deal breaker.
Voigt keeps it simple. She tells us what the characters are doing and thinking in straightforward sentences, like when Dicey describes the saleslady at the mall: "She wore makeup on her eyes, lips, and skin" (4.82). Badabing, badaboom. Then there’s the description of the dress Gram buys for Dicey: "The dress had a white knitted collar and matching cuffs; it had a brown belt that went with it" (4.229). Well, that about says it all, right?
But here’s the thing: when a writer writes this simply, the poetic moments stand out all the more. So when Dicey looks out the bus window at her surroundings, the writing is breathtaking: "Dicey looked out at the tall marsh grasses, blowing in the wind. If the wind blew, the grasses had to bend with it. She wondered how they felt about that" (4.281). Voigt uses the image of the grass to remind us that Dicey, too, is learning how to bend in response to the changes in her life. And the fact that Dicey wonders how the grasses felt is particularly striking, since we know grasses don’t feel.
Dicey has very strong feelings about learning to give, and that’s what Voigt’s telling us by showing us her thoughts. It’s a much more beautiful way of expressing that than coming right out and saying, "Dicey has very strong feelings about learning to give." It’s a perfect example of showing readers how Dicey feels instead of straight-up telling them.
The boat was her lucky charm, her rabbit's foot, her horseshoe, her pot of gold, it was the prize she'd set for herself for leading them from nowhere to somewhere. (1.9)
About that sailboat. If this old clunker doesn't scream symbol to you, we don't know what will. Not only is it Dicey’s lucky charm, it's also her way of sneaking off for a little alone time. Plus, it's what she’s working on when we first meet her. So immediately we connect Dicey to the boat and vice versa:
She stepped into the darkness and placed both her hands flat against the rough hull of the boat. Imagining how it would feel when the little boat rode on the water, how it would respond to the wind in its sails, to the waves sliding by, to her hand on the tiller. She leaned her forehead against the wood, feeling the solid curve of the hull against her skin. Unexpectedly, she found herself yawning, a huge hollow yawn that stretched her diaphragm up against her heart and cracked the hinges of her jaw. (Introduction.5)
Right off the bat, there's a physical, even emotional connection between Dicey and the boat. She leans her head against the boat, exhausted from the long summer of hitchhiking and walking she's just endured, and the boat acts as a kind of comfort for her.
But it's also a sign of her potential. In this moment, the boat can't float. But with a little TLC, which Dicey totally intends to give it: "The boat was back in the barn and she had to begin scraping off the old layers of paint. But not quite yet" (1.20).
The boat, like Dicey, is incomplete. And it can't get itself up to snuff on its own. It needs someone like Dicey to show it a little love, to sand off the old layers of paint and uncover the sea-worthy vessel that's underneath. Dicey, too, can't survive on her own. Throughout the book she learns to accept the help and kindness of others and she and her siblings get back on their feet. As she peels and sands and scrapes each layer of paint off the boat, so she peels back the layers of the Dicey onion, until finally she's comfortable enough to put her whole self out there.
Not to throw down any spoilers or anything, but in the last book of the Tillerman Cycle, Seventeen Against the Dealer, Dicey’s all grown up and owns a boat shop. Perfect, right?
What represents growing up to a young girl more than getting her first bra? A lot of girls are psyched about it, but not our Dicey. She’s not quite ready to be a grownup yet, and she’s never been a fan of girly stuff. But right from the beginning, we know it's about time she sucked it up. As Gram comes in the door from grocery shopping with James, she takes one look at Dicey and says, "You’re too old to go around half-naked" (1.26).
It takes Gram a good third of the book to get Dicey to the bra store, though. And when she finally does buy the contraption, Dicey’s not one bit happy about it; she describes wearing the bra as "feeling like a dog with a collar on." (4.212)
Why's she so against wearing one? Well, Shmoop's got a couple theories for you:
But you know what? Just as Dicey gets used to the idea of friends and boys and siblings who can handle themselves, she gets used to wearing a bra. The bra scene is just the first step in Dicey’s maturing into a teenager with a teenage social life. Once she fastens that clasp, we know what's coming, and we know she's one step closer to being ready.
You can practically hear the funky grooves in Dicey’s Song. From Bach on the piano to The Grateful Dead on the guitar, music fills up these pages. Jeff tries to win Dicey’s affections by serenading her after school, while Maybeth throws down a few scales and then whips out the Bach a few weeks later.
There are lots of great things about Gram’s house, but the fact that she has a piano is a major one. After an unsuccessful attempt to help Maybeth with her math homework, Dicey watches as "Maybeth went right to the battered upright piano and picked out the tune she had been singing in the kitchen. She searched for notes that harmonized with the melody lines" (1.133). Eventually Dicey realizes that just as she has the boat to claim as her own jam, Maybeth’s got the beat.
The piano also brings Mr. Lingerle, a.k.a. The Future Honorary Tillerman, into the story. In nurturing Maybeth’s talent, Mr. Lingerle finds a way to overcome his own loneliness. And in nurturing Mr. Lingerle (all those dinners sounded awesome, didn’t they?), Gram finds a way to overcome hers. Okay, she might not be so lonely now, what with the four extra kids in her life, but she and Mr. Lingerle learn to accept new friends as they foster Maybeth's mad skills.
Then we have the scene in which Jeff brings his guitar and he and Mina join Maybeth and sing a poignant song. Mina’s already told Dicey that the reason she wants to be Dicey’s friend is their mutual weirdness. So when she and Jeff strike up a little, "Someone beckons me from heaven’s open door, and I can’t feel at home in this world, any mo-ore" (8.362), we see that Mina really does get it. And we have a feeling Jeff does too, since we don’t exactly see an entourage gathered around him when he plays guitar after school. All three of these friends our outcasts in one way or another, but together, they've found a home. Oh, that piano—Tillermans have major epiphanies around it.
If we wanted to get any closer to Dicey, we'd have to actually jump into her skin.
That's right—the narrator stays in Dicey’s head throughout the book, showing us the action and the other characters through her perspective. We see both Dicey’s behavior and her thoughts, so even though she’s not telling us the story in first person, we’re constantly engaged with her.
For example, take this quote from when Dicey learns her mother is dying: "Dicey felt as if she was broken into pieces and didn’t know how to gather herself together again. She was angry at herself about this" (10.11). She’s not telling us her feelings in her words, but we still feel them with her.
It's a little trick the fancy lit crit types like to call free indirect discourse. When authors use free indirect discourse, they're slipping into the character's consciousness, while still writing in the third person. In other words, we're reading the character's thoughts and feelings, but we're still reading the third person. Like so:
And they lived happily ever after.
Not the Tillermans, Dicey thought. That wasn't the way things went for the Tillermans ever. She wasn't about to let that get her down. She couldn't let it get her down—that was what had happened to Momma. (1.1-2)
Right there in the first couple paragraphs, we jump right into Dicey's brain. Who else would call Liza Tillerman "Momma"? We can imagine her saying these words, and yet, she's not saying them. A third person narrator is.
Because Dicey is somewhat of a dispassionate character who has trouble voicing her emotions (or even knowing what they are), Voigt’s choice to write the book in the third person allows us to go deeper into Dicey’s brain than we could if we had to wait for Dicey herself to tell us everything. Imagine if this book were written in the first person. There's no way we'd get all the scoop we get, right?
Sure, they may not be nuclear, but Dicey and her siblings are a family nonetheless. They've just come to live with Gram, and they’re anxiously awaiting the day when she adopts them and it's all nice and official. Dicey’s outside working on the boat in the first chapter, which tells us that she’s solitary and an adventurer. When Gram comes in and tells Dicey to put on a shirt, we see that Dicey is growing up. So right off the bat we know that Dicey's seen some tough times, and she's growing up, so we're betting she'll see some more soon enough.
The entire middle of the book is majorly complicated, as life tends to be when you’re thirteen. Add poverty, a whackadoo grandmother, a mom in a mental hospital, a sister who can’t read, and teachers who don’t get it, and it’s safe to say nobody’s life is easy in Dicey’s family.
Then there’s the whole trouble-making-friends thing, in which Dicey struggles to learn how to reach out, hold on, and let go to other people all at the same time. Waiting for Gram to adopt them is perhaps the biggest complication of all; until the papers come through, the Tillerman siblings are afraid of winding up homeless again.
A lot of people take their first plane ride to go on vacation, but not Dicey: she’s going to visit her dying mother in the hospital in Boston. What, you thought Dicey and Gram were going to catch a break?
Momma’s death is the point at which Dicey realizes things have changed for good; there’s no hope that they’ll all be reunited at Gram’s house. It’s not only incredibly sad, it’s the ultimate lesson in letting go.
When Dicey and her siblings bury Momma under the mulberry tree in Gram’s front yard, you can see that they’re all beginning to come to terms with the fact that she’s no longer with them. Dicey stands over her grave and says, "Home and gone," because she’s finally realized a person can be both at the same time.
Dicey’s Song ends with Gram bringing photo albums down from the attic, as well as finally giving the kids permission to go up there and explore. They all gather in the living room, and Gram shows them pictures of their mother and her two brothers (one of which is named Bullet, for real). Not only do we see the kids beginning to feel like they’re part of a family at last, Voigt leaves the story open-ended, which sets up the sequel quite nicely.