Ten-year-old Raymie Nightingale has a plan. She is going to enter the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest because her dad has just run off with a dental hygienist. Her plan is to win and once her dad sees her picture in the paper, he will miss her and come home to her and her mother. He is such a "skunk," he even left without saying goodbye. Not that Raymie acknowledges this. Her inner monologue is innocent and shows a young person that doesn't quite have life's experiences nor the vocabulary to express how she feels. Her understanding is always just out of reach and with each adventure she has with her new friends she steps closer to self-understanding. To enter the contest, Raymie needs a talent as well as perform good deeds which leads her on some crazy adventures with her two friends, Louisiana and Beverly.
Raymie meets Louisiana and Beverly at baton-twirling lessons. All three are entering the contest and need a skill, except Beverly's mom made her enter the contest even though she didn't want to, which makes Beverly one angry swan, hissing and lashing out at everyone around her and determined to "sabotage" the contest. Louisiana is malnourished from living in poverty and has "swampy lungs". She's afraid of ending up in a foster home as her Granny doesn't have an income. She's hungry all the time and faints before the first lesson even starts. Beverly slaps Louisiana because that is "what you do" with people who have fainted. The adults in Beverly's life use physical force to make her do what they want and she feels angry at their abuse. Later when Raymie learns her mom punched Beverly in the face for shoplifting, Beverly explains she is going to live on her own and take care of herself. The adults have failed her in her life. Her dad left and her mom is angry at working in a low level job and having to raise her daughter by herself. Beverly's lonely and tough, but she shows a compassionate side when she holds Alice Nebbly's hand in the nursing home when Raymie and Lousiana are afraid of the screaming old lady. Raymie admires Beverly's fearlessness. Beverly's strong personality shows her fighting for control in her life by stealing, sabotaging, and lashing at adult authority. She admires Bonnie and Clyde, probably the most romanticized outlaws in history, and wants to be a criminal like them.
While this is set in 1975, it is more of a fairy tale than historical fiction. The few historical facts create enough background such as Ida Nee's green shag rug, batons, a wood-paneled station wagon, and references to Looney Tunes , Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Gunsmoke, and the Flying Wallendas. I would argue the story is more like a fairy tale than a historical fiction novel. In Jack Zipes, The Original First Edition of the Brothers Grimm, he exposes common themes in fairy tales such as kings who often renege on their promises and exploit children, authoritative people who abuse their power over common people, or children who are brutally treated or abandoned, to name just a few. Fairy tales show the socioeconomic context of the common folk who have little or no control over those in more powerful positions. The fairy tale is a way to point out injustices by poor leaders and try to create change. The transformative power of the fairy tale has evolved over the years reflecting issues in society today. Kate DiCamillo reflects this with the focus on divorce and abandonment and the lack of voice children have with adults due to not being able to express themselves or as in Beverly's case unable to stop the abuse.
Fairy tale characters tend to be innocent or simple-minded, but are actually quite smart - similar to Raymie. They are aided by either magic from objects or people in their pursuit of justice and happiness. Mrs. Sylvester is like a fairy godmother as Raymie seeks her out when she needs protection and comfort. Her candy corn jar is like a magic wand, because in her own words, Mrs Sylvester likes to feed people and the swans by the lake. In the Brothers Grimm's, "The Six Swans," there are six brothers that are changed into swans by a wicked stepmother. They are rescued by their sister who can't speak and must knit them magical shirts to break the curse and return them to their human form. Raymie describes Mrs. Sylvester as standing in the middle of the swans with a "...big bag of swan food in her arms, she looked like something out of a fairy tale. Raymie wasn't sure which fairy tale. Maybe it was a fairy tale that hadn't been told yet." Kate DiCamillo is creating her own fantastic fairy tale with Mrs. Sylvester as someone who feeds the hungry and abandoned such as Raymie and her two friends. When Raymie asks her about her dad leaving with another woman, Mrs. Sylvester says that she believes "most things work out right in the end." She believes in fairy tale endings and suggests Raymie can choose her own happy ending.
Raymie can't go to her mom to discuss her dad leaving because her mom is depressed and can only focus on herself; hence, Raymie seeks out Mrs Sylvester. Raymie's mom is not presented as a villain, just a person completely derailed by her husband leaving her. Raymie has become invisible to her mom who is self-absorbed with her own suffering, just like the old people are presented as invisible in this story. Mrs. Sylvester is also compared to the cat, Sylvester, in the Looney Tunes cartoon but her voice sounds like the big yellow canary named, Tweety Bird. She's like a hybrid cartoon. The cat, Sylvester, in the cartoon tries to eat Tweety Bird, but obstacles always prevent him. Sylvester the cat is always on the losing side, just like Mrs Sylvester who still works for Raymie's dad. Like a good fairy godmother, Mrs. Sylvester not only comforts and feeds but it is she who suggests Raymie read to residents at a nursing home to fulfill the good deed requirement on the contest application.
Fairy tale references are scattered like dust throughout the story, not to mention the style with its short, terse chapters and lack of background detail. Fairy tales jump right into the story and that's exactly how this starts making the reader puzzle out the beginning. Louisiana refers to the contest money, "...There's one thousand nine hundred and seventy-five dollars to win. ...That's a king's ransom."And when she tells Raymie her secret about Archie she begins, "Once upon a time..." Raymie thinks Isabelle looks like a "fairy godmother" and describes Alice Nebbly's scream as sounding like a troll from the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Louisiana thinks Ida Nee looks like a sleeping princess in a fairy tale. She reads Florence Nightingale by slamming the book shut and opening it anywhere. She makes up her own stories. The girls can write their own ending. She calls the lantern a "magic globe" like a fairy tale. Raymie ponders wishes in fairy tales and how they don't turn out right. "Wishes were dangerous things" and she thinks Beverly is smart to not wish. Beverly doesn't want to get her hopes up only to be let down later.
Motifs from Hans Christian Andersen's, "The Nightingale," are throughout the story as well. The fairy tale is about a nightingale that sings in an amazing voice for an emperor but is replaced by an automaton. When the mechanical bird breaks the emperor becomes deathly ill. So ill, that Death stands in his room. The nightingale returns and sings of hope and trust driving Death away. All the girls are filled with joy when they hear the janitor's bird sing just like anyone that hears the nightingale in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. Louisiana is determined to free the janitor's bird because it is trapped in a cage and she wants it to be free. The symbolism of cages as a form of oppression whether they are self-made or imposed by an outside force is common in literature and here it adds depth to the characters predicament. Much of the story is about rescuing people. Just like Florence Nightingale rescued wounded soldiers, Louisiana rescues animals, Beverly rescues Alice, and Raymie rescues Louisiana, and their friendship saves all three.
Louisiana makes up words and stories. In Jack Zipes, "The Irresistible Fairy Tale," he explores the history of fairy tales and how they created an alternate world for the common people. A world where a person living in poverty could become a king through magic and wit. They would rule with justice and find happiness in life. Louisiana lives in an alternate world where she makes up stories as a way of dealing with her constant hunger. When she changes Raymie's last name to "Nightingale," she is implying that she can shine a light. Louisiana is always positive and adds humor to the story. The only time she loses it is when Beverly is being hit by Ida Nee with a baton and she can't rescue her cat who she feels she betrayed. Louisiana is like the nightingale bird. She has an incredible singing voice that stuns Beverly and Raymie when they first hear it. They tell her to skip the baton and sing in the contest. Not only does Louisiana sing of hope and trust like the Nightingale did to the emperor she wins the contest and has driven off Hunger or Death.
Ida Nee is described as a mermaid, mirroring the Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," who gives up her identity to be with a prince. But the prince rejects the mermaid and she is abandoned. Ida Nee doesn't seem to know her identity in the world as she keeps trophies with other people's names on them and is a nasty person. She wanted to be a champion baton-twirler, but lost out to Beverly's mom. She keeps trophie's in her house, she even has the championship one that Beverly's mom won. Ida Nee (reminds me of Ida Lee Nagger from the TV show, Hee-Haw) lives in the past and cares more about her baton than people.
Ida Nee supposedly teaches the girls three lessons, only she never teaches them. She walked away when Louisiana fainted calling it "nonsense", hit Beverly on the head with her baton for chewing gum, and slept through the last lesson. Again, in fairy tales the stories often have three lessons or trials that the character has to go through before justice is served or the curse broken. In this case, Beverly serves justice by breaking into Ida Nee's home and stealing her baton. She's getting back at Ida Nee for her abuse. The baton is accidentally left at Mrs. Sylvester's office and the end shows Ida Nee at the contest holding it and glaring at the girls. She obviously got it back and has not changed while Beverly seems to have put her mistreatment behind her in wake of her new friendship.
The theme and imagery of abandonment is well crafted. Louisiana tells Rayme about her guilt over getting rid of her cat. She uses the word, "betrayal" that Raymie ponders and repeats over and over in her head. She feels betrayed by her dad that abandoned her. Just like Raymie, the old people are presented as invisible and abandoned in the nursing home. Louisiana's grandma is so short Raymie thinks that she looks invisible. Isabelle in the nursing home is confined to a wheel chair and cannot move any more. She is angry and tells Raymie it is important to keep moving. She asks her to push her wheelchair faster and faster. Isabelle has no voice and can't get the music changed that the janitor plays at the nursing home - she has Raymie write a complaint letter, but nothing changes. She's invisible.
Abandonment is compared to hunger. The lake is described as hungry, angry, ominous, glittering, murky. A woman drown herself in the lake during the Civil War because she thought her husband had been killed or abandoned her by dying. He showed up the day after she killed herself and Raymie wonders how long does a person have to wait and when should he or she stop? She is dealing with her dad leaving and contemplating how long she should hope for him to come back. By the end it seems she's decided to move on, especially after the silent phone call.
Characters don't tell but show. When Raymie tells Beverly that her father left, Beverly violently beats her baton into the ground. Raymie doesn't know that the same thing happened to Beverly. Beverly's mother seems to live in the past and doesn't know how to discipline her daughter. She has a tug-of-war with her daughter over her baton, punches her when she steals, and wonders aloud why she has to do everything. She's still angry about her husband leaving her and discouraged by a dead end job. Abandonment can cripple the soul - another motif. Raymie discusses her feelings as "her soul" either expands in joy or disappears becoming invisible. Mrs. Borkowski tells Raymie that most people waste their souls and most of the adults in this story fit into that category. She tells Raymie about an evil seabird that suggests bad things happen to people. That's life. Deal with it. But she also tells her if she is in a deep dark hole and looks up at the sky she can see stars in the middle of the day. She's telling her to not lose hope.
The pain of abandonment on the characters is shown through divorce, death, or not saying "goodbye." Raymie makes a point of noticing that her swim teacher said goodbye but her dad didn't. She feels betrayed by him. As she repeats the word over and over she applies it to different people and situations. Beverly leaves baton-twirling lessons and says she'll never see Raymie again. Raymie thinks, "For some reason, these words felt like a punch to the stomach. They felt like someone sneaking down a hallway in the middle of the night carrying their shoes in their hand - leaving without saying good-bye." Raymie's dad left without saying goodbye. In contrast, Raymie's Lifesaving coach from the previous summer, Mr. Staphopolous, doesn't ask questions that have no answers but is a problem solver. He did say goodbye to her when he moved away. Raymie thinks of him throughout by "flexing her toes" and "making a plan." She's trying to solve this problem of feeling abandoned.
Raymie sees Mrs. Borkowski return the Louisiana's cat in a dream where the hallway looked like a "Bright and shining path" from the Florence Nightingale book. Or is it a dream? Instead the fairy tale element truly comes to fruition as Louisiana says she was lost and now found by her cat. Hope replaces abandonment through friendship and love. Beverly decides not to sabotage the contest showing how their friendship has changed her and Raymie. Up to this point all Beverly has wanted to do is "Get the heck out of Dodge," a phrase from the TV western, Gunsmoke. When Louisiana sings, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," from the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid another romanticized tale about robbers and criminals that die in a shoot-out, the threesomes escapades as they flee authoritative figures and the confines of society, adds excitement. Granny drives a broken station wagon with a door that won't close as the group flees baton-twirling lessons like a bunch of gangsters on the lam. Louisiana and Granny turn it into a fairy tale when they are fleeing saying "Marsha Jean is the ghost of what's to come" driving fast and not stopping at any signs or lights. Later when Granny steals food from the funeral table the image of robbers from the wild west takes on a different meaning. Granny asks Raymie and Beverly to protect Louisiana. She knows that she is old and won't always be there. The three girls bond of friendship deepens with each adventure.
Ironically, Raymie gets her picture in the paper that makes her dad call the hospital. Neither of them talk and it shows the father's complete abandonment and how Raymie can't make him come home. Instead she must choose what she wants to do with her life. She wonders why does the world exist and as she is rescuing Louisiana, she seems to realize that she is strong and needs to make sense of her place in it regardless of whether or not her father is a part of it.
At the Very Friendly Animal Shelter, Louisiana rescues a dog that has been so abused the girls are not sure if it is a dog or cat. Yet it still wags its tail at the girls showing that even animals have hope to be loved and treated well. Louisiana names it Bunny because bunny's bring good luck. I used to carry around a rabbit's foot when I was growing up in the 70's. Another clever twist by the author. Louisiana also wears bunny barrettes because she says they bring her luck. Raymie sees the barrettes when she dives into Swip Pond as Louisiana sinks and they are one reason her life is saved. The swans are by the pond as well, like in a fairy tale. Kate DeCamillo has created an original fairy tale that has so many layers and meanings that I can't write about it all. Although I seem to be trying. Don't miss this winner!