Sunday, March 3, 2019

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

Source of book: Audiobook from the library.

Kate DiCamillo does not appear to ever write the same book twice. And by that, I mean, the same sort of book. We first listened to one of her books five years ago, when we were at the beginning of our “see the National Parks” project. My second daughter, who was seriously into mice and rats at the time (and kind of still is even as a teen), introduced us to The Tale of Despereaux, which we loved. Later, we all (my wife included) listened to Flora and Ulysses, which has the distinction of featuring both a magical flying squirrel AND a Rilke poem. 

Raymie Nightingale is nothing like either of these books. Or like The Magician’s Elephant. In fact, it contains nothing that could truly be considered magical. Well, unless you count a re-appearing cat. But there was a whole song about that since 1893, so it hardly seems magical. (I like the kid friendly “Stray Cats” style version…) Instead, the book is about loss, trauma, and, above all, friendship.

It is not surprising that loss and trauma are themes. Really, DiCamillo’s books all seem to involve them. Bad things happen. Children get hurt. Life sucks. Except there is always a way to muddle on through. There are good people (and even rats!) There is hope, and friendship, and love. The trauma doesn’t go away, but resilience wins in the end.

The three tween girls in Raymie Nightingale are the title character (except her name is actually Raymie Clarke - the “Nightingale” comes from a book about Florence Nightingale which figures in the plot), whose father has run off with another woman and abandoned her and her mother; Louisiana Elefante, whose parents are dead so she lives with her impoverished and slightly wacky grandmother; and Beverly Tapinski, who never knew her father - he apparently had a fling with Beverly’s mother, who seems like a grown up Honey Boo Boo.

The three girls meet at a class for baton spinners. Raymie and Louisiana are there to learn - they want to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition. Beverly knows how to twirl - it’s her mother’s claim to fame - but would rather sabotage the contest - and practice her lock picking skills. Beverly hides her insecurities behind a fearless bravado - and an outright rejection of her mother’s values. Louisiana is a real misfit - between the poverty and her ill health. Raymie’s trauma is the most recent, so she is really struggling with that for most of the book, which is told from her perspective.

The girls start out navigating the lessons (which are pretty nearly non-existent) and the teacher (who is halfway between a fraud and a lush), but end up becoming friends and co-conspirators. Raymie attempts to do a “good deed” within the definition of the contest by trying to read a book to a nursing home resident. This does not go as expected, with the woman deciding she would rather have Raymie write a letter complaining about the janitor playing too much Chopin. (No such thing! Heresy! Away from me, Satan!) And leaving her book there. After which shenanigans ensue. Likewise when Louisiana tries to rescue her cat from the clutches of the local shelter. I won’t give any more away.

As usual, DiCamillo’s writing is full of delightful turns of phrase, and some social satire that the kids probably won’t get. (Although my teens certainly did.) I would never call her books “sweet,” and certainly not “moralizing.” DiCamillo doesn’t have kids, but she seems to remember being one just fine, and is pretty non-judgmental about typical kid silliness and troublemaking. But she is also quite empathetic in her portrayals of older people. In this book, there is the older man who teaches Raymie how to rescue a drowning victim, an elderly neighbor who discusses the meaning of life (and whose death devastates Raymie), Louisiana’s grandmother, and two residents at the nursing home. I love that DiCamillo doesn’t turn away, but is honest about both dementia and the need for love. The three main characters are each unique, but memorable and believable.

One of the fascinating things about DiCamillo’s writing is how she manages to use fairly small words, aimed at younger readers, and yet create a depth of description of places, events, and especially emotions. Many addicts of purple prose could stand to learn from her technique.

As usual, this was an enjoyable book for both kids and adults. DiCamillo remains one of the most reliably good children’s authors in our audiobook rotation.


True story: my mom let me fall asleep with my walkman and classical music. I remember The Firebird was a bit much for sleeping, but Chopin...oh yes. It is impossible to pick just one favorite. But the Eb Nocturne #2 makes me feel like that little kid tucked in bed with his headphones.

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