Raymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo published in 2016 by Candlewick Press
Kate DiCamillo’s newest work, her most deeply personal yet, is at its core the story of how connection and friendship bring healing to our wounded hearts.
As with any of DiCamillo’s many stories, Raymie Nightingale is replete with quirks and humorous exchanges. It’s peopled with astonishing characters who defy tidy categorization. It’s studded with gemlike moments that catch us off guard and take our breath away. And it conveys with poignancy the human connections we all long for.
But, of course, healing emerges due to a wound, and the wounds in Raymie are painfully authentic, a fatiguing series of gray griefs that pierce the heart, so wearisome, so deep, that Raymie herself is left to wonder why the world even exists. In portraying the emotional havoc experienced by the three young girls in this narrative, DiCamillo uses simple, spare language, but no kidding, it is powerful. Healing is hard-won, and we don’t get there until we’ve been honest about the pain.
Briefly, this is the story of Raymie Clarke, a 10-year-old girl from small town Florida, circa 1975. Raymie is a sensitive, serious child who has one objective in mind: to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975 contest, thereby getting her picture in the newspaper, which her father will see. Her father, who has just run away with the local dental hygienist. When her father sees her photo, so goes Raymie’s logic, he will be so overcome with pride and affection that he will return to her and her mother. Problem solved.
As she prepares for the talent competition of the pageant, Raymie meets Louisiana and Beverly, two more 10-year-olds whose lives are likewise marked by abandonment, loss, and abuse. Both of these girls has a plan in mind for the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest as well, and all three plans are in direct opposition to one another.
Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly manage their hurts in widely different styles. Yet there is just enough vulnerability between them to allow a growing interdependence as they contend with baton-twirling lessons, missing cats, crazy grandmothers, good deeds gone awry, and the deepest longings of their hearts. It’s this vulnerability that ends up saving their lives.
As the novel opens and we land in Central Florida, there’s an aura of the surreal or absurd. A chirpy, bird-voiced secretary offers us candy corn. A stern matron with extremely-bright-yellow hair and white knee-boots teaches baton-twirling under a High Noon sky. The daughter of the Flying Eleflantes shows up in a pink dress and promptly faints. I feel like I’m watching Pushing Daisies, with colors turned up to inordinately loud levels and the Darling Mermaid Darlings about to enter stage right.
For me, this theater-of-the-eccentric gives a sense of detachment; perhaps alienation. The world is a bit off kilter and three shades too loud, yet standing in the midst of it is a trio of small children trying to find their way. The pain, loneliness, and despair they feel lie in stark contrast to the weird sound-and-light show around them.
All of this is soul-shrinking, as Raymie would say.
Yet as the days hobble along, there are rays of hope which inevitably radiate from companionable friendship, from ordinary people who smile and pat your arm and say, “There, there,” and stick with you no matter what. Glimmers of fragile beauty — tangerine dresses and lemon chiffon birds pouring out notes of happiness, and a hand to hold when you need one. These are the soul-inflaters. The bits of life that make your heart feel as if it’s ballooning with warmth and goodness again.
When the bottom of the world drops out, DiCamillo seems to say, and the lights fizzle, and it’s cold and lonely, and you can’t remember what the point is anymore…and someone safe in a fuzzy blue sweater reaches into that desperate place and listens to your heart with love and care…things really do change. Love mends the broken parts. Love works miracles. That’s worth knowing on this tear-stained journey.
So who is this for? Kids love Kate’s books. Certainly she brings complexity and authenticity to her characters in a manner tremendously respectful of her child-readers. Yet I’m unsure whether 9 and 10 year olds are the best audience for this one. This story seems more apt for those a bit older, or a lot older, who are more able to mine its gold.
That is not a blanket statement. Many 10-year-olds who can relate deeply to the significant losses of these girls will find solace in their companionship. And some whose lives are as yet unruffled by grief or betrayal may skate right over the depths and just enjoy the story and its new cast of eccentric characters. But for those of you looking for guidance, my sense is that this novel is a bit heavier than other DiCamillo books.
Raymie Nightingale will be shelved with Children’s Fiction because the protagonists are ten years old. But this is one case where I hope those older than 10 — those in their teens, and twenties and well past middle-age — will find their souls rearranged by the touching friendship of Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly.
It hits the shelves next week, so get in line now!