Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Louisiana's Way Home by Kate DiCamillo


Source of book: Audiobook from the library


This is our fifth Kate DiCamillo audiobook. The others have been (in the order we listened): The Tale of Despereaux, Flora and Ulysses, The Magician’s Elephant, and Raymie Nightingale


Louisiana’s Way Home was written in 2018, and is sort of a sequel to Raymie Nightingale. Rather than follow the adventures of Raymie, it is the story of her friend Louisiana. It helps a bit to have read the prior book, but it can stand alone in a pinch. In the previous book, we meet Louisiana and her highly eccentric grandmother, who lies and steals and does whatever is necessary to survive. We also learn about the family curse, which plays a big part in the next book. 


The book starts with Louisiana being awakened in the middle of the night by her grandmother, who is going on about the curse coming to rest on them. They take off to the north, and Georgia. Partway through their trip, Granny comes down with an infected tooth that incapacitates her. Louisiana has to drive, and find a way to a dentist. Afterward, Granny is laid up, and they have only paid for one night at the hotel, and Louisiana still has no idea what the heck is going on. And then, Granny drives off, leaving Louisiana alone in a strange town, with a letter explaining that Louisiana isn’t who she thinks she is, and basically blowing up her world. 


The aftermath of this abandonment and Louisiana’s journey to find a home now that her life as she knew it doesn’t exist, is humorous, heartwarming, and devastating. As I have noted in prior reviews, DiCamillo doesn’t write “nice” stories. Abandonment by parents is a theme in all of them. There are plenty of orphans, and plenty of parents that are not the best sorts. And some who are, of course. Along with the unpleasant characters, there are always good hearted ones, many of whom are found in unexpected places. 


In this book, the primary trauma for Louisiana is the loss of identity. For all of us, we have a conception of ourselves, a source of our identity, a way of understanding who we are and where we came from. When we lose that, it is devastating and unmooring. 


I have experienced that myself over the last few years. Not that long ago, I knew who I was. I was part of a religious tradition, part of a family, and felt I knew who I was. Those things have been taken from me. Fortunately, I am not a child, and have other parts of my identity which remain intact. I am a husband and father, a musician, a reader and thinker, a decent cook, and a lover of nature. But the losses have been disorienting. Seeing the mask come off of my religious tradition in the Trump era has been tough. It is a literal disillusionment - I no longer see the pretty illusion, but the ugly reality of a “faith” that is all politics, racism, and misogyny the whole way down. And likewise, I cannot look at my extended family the same way. Things cannot be unsaid, and relationships cannot be unbroken. 


Louisiana has the same basic experience. She thought she knew who her parents were, and she thought that Granny, while a skilled liar, at least wasn’t lying to her. And when all that crumbles around her, and she is left literally alone in life, she responds pretty much how you would expect. She is, to be sure, resilient, but no child can be expected to walk away unscathed. That Louisiana comes to some level of peace with her past and even with Granny (whose fate we never learn), is a testimony to her strength of character and the love of those with whom she finds a connection. (This includes Raymie and Beverly from the previous book, although their appearances near the end are brief.) 


This book has the usual delightfully horrible characters that DiCamillo writes so well. The owner of the hotel is the stereotypical nasty woman that appears in some form in each of DiCamillo’s books - I wonder if she has a particular person from her childhood in mind, but I think all of us can conjure up someone similar. Granny is as weird and crazy as she was in the other book, although I kind of wish there had been some closure regarding her story. From a practical point of view, it seems possible that she would have died of sepsis from the untreated tooth infections, but I am not sure the author was thinking along that line. It seems out of character for Granny to permanently abandon Louisiana, but she also seems to have foreseen her death in the near future. (Goodness knows she is old enough.) 


One character was unexpected to me, and that was the clergyman, the Reverend Obertask. He is humorously described as looking like a walrus, and we first meet him when he is snoring at his desk. But he turns out to be a wonderfully thoughtful man. Louisiana comes to him, initially looking for someone to end the family curse. (The “curse of sundering” - meaning being cut off from those you love.) But what Louisiana really wants is answers to the unanswerable questions of her life. What kind of parents would abandon her in an alley? Why would her seemingly loving grandmother (who isn’t her grandmother at all as it turns out) abandon her in a strange town? Would she forever be separated from those she loves? 


Obertask is the rare clergyman who admits that he has no answers. He explains that the only magic he has is that of listening, and that he hopes that if she doesn’t tell her story to him, she tells it to someone. To hear a clergyman actually say “I don’t know” and “there isn’t really an answer to that question” is refreshing. Also, he refuses to talk down to Louisiana, unlike so many of the adults in her life. 


Don’t get the impression that Obertask doesn’t do anything, either. He indeed does his best to help Louisiana, and is instrumental in finding her a home. But he doesn’t pretend to give answers to why bad things happen. He doesn’t “explain” the problem of evil, or spout platitudes like so many religious people I know. He acknowledges that a lot of things just plain suck for Louisiana. 


I think maybe the best moment is when he explains that everyone, at some point in their life, will be forced to decide who they will be. For Louisiana, this has come to her far too early in her life, but Obertask has confidence that she will meet the challenge. And she does. 


I don’t want to spoil the plot beyond that, but this was yet another example of why we love DiCamillo. She seems never to have forgotten what it is like to be a child, so she never moralizes about childhood emotions. Her writing is both simple enough to be age-appropriate, yet lovely and evocative. No two books are alike, either, although this one and Raymie Nightingale are, for obvious reasons, more similar than her other books. I also note that her books are much more in the vein of classic “naughty child” stories like Tom Sawyer than most. Every book has something outrageous (and delightful), often at the expense of a character who had it coming. Depending on your kids, they might find this a big attraction of the books. But they also will find the characters interesting, and the stories compelling. 


The audiobook was narrated by Cassandra Morris. I don’t think she has narrated any of the other books we have listened to, but no complaints. It was a good job. 


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