Study Guide

James Tillerman in Homecoming

By Cynthia Voigt

James Tillerman

When we're introduced to James, the author tells us that he's "ten and want[s] everything to have a reason" (1.1.4). This is James in a nutshell. He's only in elementary school when his mother abandons them, but the kid has got the brain to survive just about anything.

James excels at school. He loves learning and reading and pondering all kinds of interesting questions. Unlike Sammy, he's more of a rational thinker than an impulsive doer. He processes things quickly, though, and he's usually the one to challenge Dicey's plans for their trip. For instance, he's the one who wonders why they just don't take a bus to Bridgeport instead of walking. To be fair, you don't really need a brilliant mind to figure that one out, though—it's all about dollars and cents (of which the Tillerman kids possess very few).

James can also be a bit mischievous with that mind of his. He's manipulative at times, faking an injury at Rockland State Park so the kids can stay there longer and relax. He's also the one who convinces Jerry to sail them across the Chesapeake Bay, even though he doesn't quite understand how the kid could fall for his tactics:

"I thought you'd never catch on," he said. "I thought that Jerry'd never catch on. You know, Dicey? We made them do what we wanted them to do."

"Tom really did it," Dicey said.

"Yeah. Why did he? Does he want to get his friend in trouble?" (2.2.159-161)

He also tends to look up to people who seem smart, whether or not they actually are. He idolizes Louis after first meeting him at Rockland State Park and keeps quoting from his lessons during their trip. It isn't until James tests this theory in real life by stealing cash from Stewart's wallet that he gets a new lesson of his own:

"That may be true but it's not a big enough truth
to contain me. I plan to be a man when I get through. Not only a man, I plan to be a good man."

"Why?" James asked.

"Because I owe it to myself," Stewart said.

"Is that all?"

"No," Stewart said, but he didn't add anything to it.

"I don't understand," James said. Stewart didn't answer him. "Can I learn to understand?"

"Maybe," Stewart said.

"I'm smart," James said. "Will that help?"

"Maybe," Stewart said. "Maybe not." (1.8.66-74)

To James's credit, he is willing to learn and grow. When he finds out he was wrong, he can admit it and change his views. While his grandfather Tillerman loved reading about things, it only made him stubborn and set in his ways, but James is different:

"He got all of his answers out of books," their grandmother said. "Books don't change, and he liked that. They made him feel right."

"What's the matter with that?" James wanted to know. "You can study books and think about what's in them. People put down what happened before you were even born, and you can understand and not make the same mistakes. Like history."

"The past is gone," their grandmother said.

"But it shouldn't be forgotten," James said. "Should it?"

"Sometimes," their grandmother said. "Sometimes it's better. My husband used his books to build a wall to keep things out. Oh I know." She cut off James's answer. "I know it doesn't have to be that way. But that's the way it was." (2.9.117-121)

Knowledge, for James, is a way of getting at the truth. He wants to find answers, but is also willing to change those answers if he finds out they're wrong—he like truth more than correctness, which is sort of similar to Dicey's preference for truth over an easy story (more about that on her page elsewhere in this section). James's big brain allows him to be flexible, and he'll probably be able to get along wherever he goes. We don't have to worry much about James. 

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