She had to learn how to twirl a baton and she had to learn fast, because if she learned how to twirl a baton, then she stood a good chance of becoming Little Miss Central Florida Tire. And if she became Little Miss Central Florida Tire, her father would see her picture in the paper and come home. That was Raymie’s plan.
A forthcoming Kate DiCamillo book is always a cause for celebration in my household, so I was excited to see her newest for middle-grade readers, Raymie Nightingale, on the shelf in my library. DiCamillo is a master of the meaningful story; her books inspire deep feeling, and have made me cry, laugh, and everything in between. This story is probably most similar in tone to Because of Winn-Dixie; both feature a quirky collection of supporting players, and a missing parent. (In Raymie’s case, her dad has just left town with Leigh Ann Dickerson, the dental hygienist, and the story focuses on her coping with this development, and her plan to bring him back home.) Raymie differs from Winn-Dixie though, in that I’d suggest it for a slightly older audience. It’s beautiful and moving and has elements of hope, but overall I think the tone is just a bit more cynical than is typical for DiCamillo. There are a lot of existential questions, too; “I wonder what will become of us?” is one particularly poignant ending to a chapter. It feels a bit more like real life; by the end of the story, Raymie’s pain is slightly eased, but what gives the most comfort to Raymie and to the reader is the presence of her friends. Again, just like in real life; our friends don’t take away our pain for us, but they help us to bear it. And along with Raymie, many of the secondary characters find healing in both big and small ways; the underlying story is that of this group of rag-tag individuals and how they find, support, and help each other. None of the characters would be as whole without the others.
The narrative is so well-written; the ending seems both inevitable and surprising, somehow. And like always with DiCamillo, the book is full of top-notch character names: Louisiana Elefante, Mrs. Borkowski, Beverly Tapinski, Ida Nee, Mr. Staphopoulos. I also love her style of dialogue. Hardly any of the characters would qualify as verbose, but so much is said with the perfect well-chosen words. The children’s dialogue isn’t really typical of today’s speech patterns; they’re more formal and measured, with “I’m so sorry for your loss” and “Oh, my goodness” scattered throughout the book. But in Raymie the words never seem stilted or false. DiCamillo’s characters simply use language differently. Another quirk of the story is the setting; like Winn-Dixie, the characters are placed in Florida, but this story also set in a specific time, in 1975. Much of it is timeless; other than a few places where a cell phone would have come in handy and some references to historical events, you could see it happening nowadays.
I so appreciate that even though DiCamillo’s stories are sad, none of them end with the character alone. There is always reconciliation or a new friendship formed, some uplifting note at the end. Although at the end of this tale we don’t have a sense that Raymie’s pain is completely eased, we know that she is not facing it alone, and that is enough.