Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (2016) Candlewick Press (2016) 263 pp
Kate DiCamillo’s new novel Raymie Nightingale begins with heartbreak. In the summer of 1975, the ten-year-old protagonist Raymie Clarke has just lost her father. No, he didn’t die. He simply took off with the dental hygienist, abandoning Raymie and her mother for Raymie cannot imagine. Because she cannot imagine why he’d leave, her innocent mind thinks it might be a rather simple matter getting him to return: she’ll compete in and win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition. When he sees her photograph in the newspaper, he’ll come back.
That is such a devastating opening premise: here is a young girl who feels responsible for her father’s infidelity and disloyalty, to the extent she thinks it’s up to her to meet his expectations and bring him back. If she can please him, show him she is remarkable, why, he’ll just return home; he would never have deserted his family if they had proven remarkable. She cannot at this point imagine his returning as anything but welcome validation. DiCamillo has a history of showing how innocence and naivety can lead to pain and disenchantment. But she also shows just how remarkable the innocent and naïve can be.
Raymie is not sure what her talent should be, so she signs up for a course in baton twirling. There she meets two young girls who are also planning to compete in the pageant: Louisiana Elefante, an orphan who’s cared for by her impoverished grandmother, and Beverly Tapinski, whose ultimate goal is to sabotage the pageant. We also meet a host of grownups, most of whom have lost their way even as they hold out hope that they can help these young girls keep some bit of hope alive.
DiCamillo’s tone and structure in Raymie Nightingale is familiar — and welcome — to those of us who have been reading her steady output. She’s dealt with children trying to make sense of disappointed and disappointing adults before, and yet there is a softness of touch, a comic rhythm, and an energetic burst of heroism in almost all of her works. Even her two uniquely premised Newberry Medal winners — The Tale of Desperaux, dealing with a big-eared mouse, and Flora and Ulysses, dealing with a typewriting squirrel — move from comedy to sadness to desperate action in a blink, if you dare to blink while the action sets off a myriad of linguistic and plot springs set in the earlier chapters.
In Raymie Nightingale, Raymie feels like a failure throughout, often doing something that takes her further from her initial goals, but we know it’s because her initial goals are unworthy of her generous spirit.
That’s usually how I walk away from DiCamillo’s books, feeling the benefits of a generous spirit, one that recognizes — as truly generous spirits do — the battering effects of disappointment over time. It’s healing.