By Kate DiCamillo
272 pp. Candlewick Press. $16.99. (Middle grade; ages 8 to 12)
Perhaps the sincerest aim of any fairy tale is not to introduce young readers to the quixotic pleasures of magic and fantasy but rather to initiate all readers into life’s unspeakable verities: Parents desert families, orphaned children often go hungry, and even the most loyal beloveds are capable of astonishing acts of betrayal. Early on in Kate DiCamillo’s captivating new novel, “Raymie Nightingale,” we learn about an older woman who regularly feeds a bevy of swans, seeming “like something out of a fairy tale.” Ten-year-old Raymie Clarke, an anxious heroine, considers the possibility that it’s “a fairy tale that hadn’t been told yet.” That’s an irresistible promise to begin a novel with, and DiCamillo is up to the challenge. With its short, vibrant chapters and clear, gentle prose, this triumphant and necessary book conjures the enchantments of childhood without shying away from the fraught realities of abandonment, abuse and neglect.
Set during the summer of 1975, “Raymie Nightingale” features an unlikely threesome of girls who bond over a series of disastrous baton-twirling lessons as they prepare to vie for the fantastic title of Little Miss Central Florida Tire. Raymie, fretful and sensitive, hopes to win the crown, become famous and lure her father, who has run away with a dental hygienist, back home. Louisiana Elefante, an angelic-looking orphan living with her grandmother in penury, sets her wide eyes on the prize money — confident that the winnings will keep her out of the county home and the clutches of the mysterious Marsha Jean. Beverly Tapinski, the unflappable, streetwise daughter of a former beauty queen and a New York City cop, is committed to sabotaging the entire pageant. Louisiana dubs the girls “the Three Rancheros,” and with their every misadventure and escapade, the Rancheros pledge to rescue one another from their troubled lives.
DiCamillo, a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and the author of the Newbery Honor book “Because of Winn-Dixie” as well as two Newbery Medal winners, “The Tale of Despereaux” and “Flora and Ulysses,” has returned to her Florida roots and to the careful handling of such thorny issues as loneliness and parental desertion. In “Raymie Nightingale,” DiCamillo uses her light touch and boundless humor to deliver the difficult news that adults are fallible and that children must learn to develop an unwavering sense of self-reliance and self-acceptance. Summoning the wit of Flannery O’Connor and the sweet melancholy of John Prine, she elegantly connects her characters’ wild actions to their roiling emotions. She writes with compassion and grace about both childhood traumas and adult transgressions.
Along the way, the Three Rancheros search for a missing library book about Florence Nightingale (inspiring the book’s title); steal a baton; discover the whereabouts of a missing, beloved cat; and develop a tender but hard-earned friendship. Louisiana Elefante, who may or may not be the daughter
of famous trapeze artists, is one of DiCamillo’s most singular and arresting creations. With “swampy lungs” and an untamed warren of multiplying bunny rabbit barrettes, Louisiana delights on every page. When Louisiana asks her new friends, “Have you ever in your life come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depends on you?” the reader understands not only her sorrow but also the vibrant powers of her imagination. Then there is Beverly Tapinski, who makes twirling a baton “look easy and impossible at the same time” and has already run away from home and made it as far as Atlanta. She is jaded and unimpressed by adult wisdom, yet when she lies about the origins of her black eye and beats the gravel with her new baton, it is impossible not to feel her vulnerability along with the quake of her anger and the fierceness of her still-developing strength.
But it is Raymie Clarke, with her ever-expanding soul, her pluck and fortitude, who succeeds at something far bigger than any Little Miss competition. Though Raymie’s absent father ironically sells family insurance — his receptionist answers the phone with “Clarke Family Insurance. How may we protect you?” — DiCamillo tackles the ever-present uncertainty of whether any family can be protected from separation or disaster. By learning to make new friends and to trust in her friendships, Raymie comes into a powerful sense of self-knowledge. She is a terrific model for young readers and adult readers alike.
Twirling a baton requires flair and confidence, in addition to an understanding that the baton is always balanced just a tiny bit off-center. There is something wonderfully off-balance, too, about DiCamillo’s storytelling. It allows her characters to sparkle and soar. DiCamillo has called this novel, based partly on her own fatherless Florida childhood, “the absolutely true story of my heart.” What a beautiful and generous heart it is.