A Feature Review of
Raymie Nightingale: A Novel
Hardback: Candlewick Press, 2016
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Reviewed by Sarah Brown
It is hard to review a book like Raymie Nightingale without wanting to append a great big post-modern ‘spoiler alert’ in flashing red letters, because a full appraisal necessitates mentioning the ending. Three quarters of the way through the book, you find yourself holding it at arm’s length, squinting at it with only one eye open, and hoping for the sort of redemption that wends its way through most of Kate DiCamillo’s other novels. True to form, DiCamillo delivers her characters from what seem to be insurmountable challenges; equally true to form, she eschews a fairy tale sort of ending in favor of one more recognizable to young readers as a resolution they might actually encounter in their own lives.
In order to get to that recognizable ending, the three main characters – Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly – set forth on a number of quests. Initially drawn together by the baton twirling lessons that they think will help them win the title of Miss Central Florida Tire 1975, the girls (Louisiana declares that they should be called ‘the Rancheros’) soon stray from their pageant aspirations in order to locate a lost library book and a cat allegedly consigned to the pound. Along the way, DiCamillo inserts the sort of characters one would expect in an epic, including several sage advisors and an invisible villain in the form of a social worker trying to take Louisiana to the County Home.
Each girl is wounded by the disappearance of an authority figure. Beverly and Raymie’s fathers have left, and Lousiana lives with her grandmother following the supposed drowning of her trapeze artist parents. The Rancheros grapple with these desertions at the same time that they try to solve the immediate problems in front of them. Initially working against each other, they join forces when it becomes apparent that their stories are more similar than different, despite their markedly disparate coping strategies. One of the book’s great strengths is this depiction of the development of an unwilling friendship, which will be familiar to many readers who have found themselves confronting the problems of childhood alongside someone quite unexpected.
As the story travels on, the girls begin to share the truth of their lives with each other, and it becomes harder to read the book as a simple summertime tale. Louisiana and her grandmother live in a mansion devoid of furniture and electricity; their poverty is extreme enough that they crash the funeral of Raymie’s neighbor in order to steal food. This beloved neighbor’s death allows Raymie to begin to grieve the desertion of her father, and she begins to realize that winning a beauty pageant title will not cause her father to come home and rejoin her family. Beverly, ostensibly the most hardened of the three, admits that her police officer father actually lives in New York, and that she has attempted twice to run away to find him.
By the time the girls undertake a nighttime expedition to rescue an animal trapped at the Very Friendly Animal Center, which is actually not at all friendly, the reader expects further disaster rather than a successful escape. Sure enough, things get far worse before they get better, and Raymie finds that she possesses skills that quite literally help her overcome death, and thereby secures an unlikely sort of redemption. DiCamillo describes the thoughts running through Raymie’s head in this moment beautifully and succinctly. “[W]hat Raymie thought as they rose together was that it was the easiest thing in the world to save somebody. . . For just a minute, she understood everything in the whole world.” (243) This lifesaving act does, in fact, lead to Raymie’s father reaching out to her, but she finds herself unable to speak to him, and one of DiCamillo’s expertly crafted adult bystanders tells him exactly what he should do with himself. While none of the Rancheros ends up with the quest ending in the way she would have preferred, there is enough resolution among the girls and their families that the reader feels satisfied and hopeful.
The book contains some achingly gorgeous imagery. Raymie repeatedly ponders the shape, size, and feeling of her soul in relation to what is happening around her. She senses it expand in the glint of sunshine on a freshly polished floor, and feels it fold in on itself and shrink to be smaller than the period at the end of a sentence. In a similar vein, she contemplates the sun and its movements and brightness, often finding that changes in light intersect with moments when she senses some sort of deep truth. There is an interplay of light and water imagery, as well, with the blindingly bright waters of fictional Lake Clara serving as the backdrop for the Rancheros’ initial meeting at baton lessons. By contrast, the final accident that almost kills Louisiana takes place at a pitch-black sinkhole-turned-lake. DiCamillo weaves the lakes stories’ into the girls’ quest, and a photograph of Lake Clara links Raymie to her father as she struggle to come to terms with his abandonment.
In Raymie Nightingale, DiCamillo returns to the heartbroken quests familiar to readers of The Tale of Desperaux and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Readers looking for her trademark humor will find it, and the book is a comfortable read for those who love DiCamillo’s quirky characters and their difficult circumstances, not to mention a few devoted animal companions. Likewise, the characters’ trials make this a book that might not be ideal for every young reader, especially those for whom the girls’ situations might be too familiar. Adults recommending this book to young readers would do well to be prepared to discuss the feelings that it brings to the surface. Taken as a whole, though, Raymie Nightingale, is an outstanding treatment of friendship and loss, and is sure to resonate with readers who find it at just the moment they need it.