Study Guide

Homecoming Religion

By Cynthia Voigt

Religion

James flicked his eyes over the cemetery. "We're all gonna die, you know."

Dicey nodded. "Not for a long time."

"Do you think Momma's dead?"

"I don't know. How could I know that?"

"No matter what, we're all gonna die," James remarked. "So it doesn't matter what we do, does it?"

Dicey was thinking about other things, about maps and food. She didn't answer.

"Unless there's a Hell, to punish us. But I don't think there is. I really don't. Or Heaven. Or anything. Dicey?" (1.6.209-215)

The Tillerman kids might not have any religious background, but that doesn't mean they don't think about the big questions in life. Here, James has come up with a kind of nihilistic philosophy. What do individual actions matter since everyone just winds up in the grave anyhow? That's one way of looking at things.

Where the veil broke, you could see silvery islands of clouds on which tall angels might stand. Not cute little Christmas angels, but high, stern angels in white robes, whose faces were sad and serious from being near God all day and hearing His decisions about the world. Dicey was hypnotized by the molten silver of the cloudy islands and not until the veil of fuzzy gray blew across it again did she begin their march of the day. (1.7.19)

Dicey seems to be thinking about the Christmas cards Aunt Cilla would send with sweet little angels on them. But she recognizes that the heavens probably contain sterner forces. After all, if God's in charge, then he's the one putting these kids through this terrible trip, right?

Sometimes the Church can make the more sensitive personal inquiries, that the police authorities can't." He turned to Dicey. "What is your religion?"

"I don't know," Dicey said. "We never went to church." He frowned slightly.

"There is another question that I'm afraid I have to ask. The matter of your name. Tillerman. That would be your mother's name. Your parents were not married?"

Dicey shook her head. "I don't think so," she said. Cousin Eunice sucked in a noisy breath. Dicey did not look at her. (1.9.150-153)

Oh, man—let the judgments start. Eunice is very devout, so she's scandalized by the fact that Dicey's parents weren't married. Father Joseph is a bit pushy, but at least he doesn't have a breakdown over kiddies born outside of wedlock.

"I pray for Mother, and for myself, and for the world," Cousin Eunice said. "This morning, I shall pray for you, and for your poor mother."

Dicey felt uncomfortable. "Thank you," she said. Was that what you were supposed to say to somebody who was praying for you? (1.10.11-12)

What are you supposed to say, indeed? Cousin Eunice may be devout, but she also uses her faith as a bit of a status symbol; it's a way for her to gain praise and kudos for being so holy. Here she is fishing for spiritual compliments from Dicey.

The girls said—you know how silly some people are—that I was a saint to take you in, that anybody else would turn you over to social services. But I said, I can't do that, they're my own flesh and blood. Which in a way you are, you know." (1.10.186)

Wow. Sure, Eunice agrees that this comment is "silly," but we get the feeling she also secretly thinks it's true. She's so kind and loving and Christ-like. Like a saint in training, right?

"The family is not Catholic, you know."

Dicey nodded. He kept bringing that up. (1.11.24-25)

Again, religious belonging is like a status symbol. Dicey doesn't really care at all about people's religion, but folks seem really worried about hers. This is just another way the Tillermans are outside of society's rules.

The fathers say that part of man's purpose is to increase his knowledge, so that he can understand better how great is God's work. A lot of people think knowledge is dangerous. But they're wrong. Did you ever think of that, Cousin Eunice?"

"Yes, of course," Cousin Eunice said. "God wants children to study hard and behave well in school."

James answered slowly. "I guess you could say that. But that's not the way the fathers talk about it, about learning. They don't treat it like a duty. They treat it like a gift. Like grace."

"I don't think you can be right about that," Cousin Eunice said. "Not grace. That's not what the Gospels say, is it? Nobody's ever told me the Gospels say that. I've always understood that duty is the most important, even the best." (1.11.147-150)

This is Cousin Eunice in a nutshell: Doing one's duty is more important than experiencing God's grace. She's also clearly not a deep thinker. People have to tell her what the Gospels say. She can't figure it out on her own. After all, James has been studying this Catholic stuff for a few days and already he has a better grasp on it than Eunice who's been doing it her whole life.

"It sounds—" Dicey tried to think of what she should say. "Nice. You'd make a good nun."

"Do you think so? I had hoped so. However, that is out of the question now." Cousin Eunice's eyes filmed with tears, and she shook her head. "Because of you children. You need me more, Father Joseph says. It is God's work, just as much, caring for the abandoned children." As she spoke, she looked over Dicey's shoulder at something Dicey couldn't see, something Dicey suspected wasn't there at all, and her eyes shone. "That is my duty. You will be my family now." Her soft voice vibrated with the pleasure of resolution and sacrifice.

"Are you sure?" Dicey asked.

"It is God's will," Cousin Eunice said, bowing her head. (1.11.161-164)

Too bad Cousin Eunice doesn't know more about grace—she might not have been such a lousy guardian then. She'll take in the children because it's her Christian duty. They're not a gift from God, though, they're a task and a burden to be endured. No wonder Dicey and her siblings made a run for it.

When the doors opened, Dicey watched carefully for her sister. Lots of children went to church with their parents, all of them dressed up. The girls wore organdy dresses and party shoes and ribbons in their hair, or hats. The boys wore real suits and ties. Cousin Eunice always walked out slowly, surrounded by a group of women who could have been her sisters. They dressed alike. They all wore those high-heeled shoes. They all had curled their hair into sausages.

These women made a pet out of Maybeth. She would stand in the middle and they would tell her how pretty she was, how lucky she was to have naturally curly hair, and what a sweet, quiet girl she was. "You're going to break some hearts for sure," they said, giggling.

Maybeth listened to this and smiled foolishly.

"An angel like you—nobody will be good enough for you. She's a treasure, Eunice," they said.

"Don't I know it?" Cousin Eunice answered smugly.

"A doll, a perfect doll."

Dicey put her hands behind her back and clenched her fists, waiting for Cousin Eunice to see her.

When Cousin Eunice called her, the women stepped back and smiled primly at her. Maybeth put out her hand for Dicey to take. Her eyes were wide as she looked at Dicey, wide and pleased with the attention. The silly smile stayed. (1.12.5-12) 

We're not really sure that Cousin Eunice would make a very good nun. She's pretty silly and doesn't seem to genuinely care much for others. She only likes Maybeth because she's pretty, quiet, and obedient—just like she was. But she also clearly takes a lot of pride in caring for this poor motherless child. You know what they say about pride before a fall, right? 

She wanted to sit with Dicey in the kitchen every night, with cups of tea, which Dicey could never completely drink, and talk about religion and serving God and how when she was a girl she had wanted to be a nun. But her mother said she wasn't strong enough in spirit, didn't have a real calling, should wait to see if she got married. (1.12.36)

Shmoop likes to talk religion as much as the next person, but talking about God with Cousin Eunice would be agony. Poor Dicey.

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