Dicey's Song is a beautiful coming of age story of a 13 year old girl from a poverty-stricken background, who (along with her three younger siblings) has just come to live with her irascible grandmother in a dilapidated farmhouse on the edge of a small town on the Chesapeake Bay.
There isn't much action in the story, and there is a lot of self-reflection - so some teenagers (especially some boys) may not be very interested in it. The cover doesn't help much in this respect. I kept picking the book up and then moving on to a different book, because it just looked.....gloomy. Like a stereotypical "Newbery winner", I guess (though there really isn't any such thing), and I thought it would be full of angst, depressing events, and beautiful language
It wasn't until I had just a handful of Newbery winners left to read that I reluctantly picked Dicey's book up again.
Well, there is angst, and there is undeniably some tragedy (and beautiful language, too) in Dicey's Song, but it was really stupid of me to put off reading it, because it is also wonderful, and I loved it. The characters seem so real - so complex and interesting - that I can't wait to read more about all of them, starting with Homecoming, the book that precedes Dicey's Song in the "Tillerman cyle". The sibling relationships are fascinating, and Gram (aka Ab Tillerman) is one of my favorite characters in a kid's book since Richard Peck's Grandma Dowdel (in A Year Down Yonder). Ab isn't just eccentric and fierce, though - she has secrets, and we learn about some of the choices she made that have influenced the whole family in Dicey's Song.
Quite a few thought-provoking issues are explored in Dicey's story, which does put it squarely in "stereotypical Newbery"-winning territory. The meaning of family, sibling relationships, school and dealing with teachers, learning disabilities and differences (particularly in the ways different kids learn and different kinds of talent and intelligence), being an outsider, and finally, dealing with loss - all are important parts of Dicey's Song. Unlike some of the other Newbery winners, though (like Summer of the Swans, which covers some of the same terrain), Dicey's Song is rather timeless, and isn't really linked to any specific happenings in the late1970's- early 80's. You can figure out when the story's set by thinking about the technology (pre-Internet but post-Vietnam, and plane travel isn't extraordinarily rare), but it could almost as easily have taken place in the 1930's or the 50's. The emotional stresses of worrying about a brother who gets into fights, wanting some time away from the rest of the family, dealing with financial problems and prickly characters and aging - into adulthood and "the golden years" - are all pretty interesting as Voigt describes them, anyway - and still relevant in 2011.