Thursday, May 12, 2016

"Sorry for Your Loss:" Raymie Nightingale by Kate Di Camillo

"Shhhh," said Louisiana. She patted Raymie on the back. "I'm so sorry for your loss. That's what you're supposed to say at funeral gatherings. And it's true, too. I'm sorry for your loss."

Raymie heard the squeaky sound of air entering and exiting Louisiana's swampy lungs. "I like the words "I'm sorry for your loss,'" said Louisiana, still holding on to Raymie. "I think that they are good words.

You could say them to anyone at any time."

Raymie Clarke is learning about loss. First, Mr. Staphopoulos, her friend and swimming instructor, moves away, taking his drowning dummy with the indelible smile and the faint smell of mildew with him in his backseat. Then her elderly mentor Mrs. Borkowski dies, without explaining just how from the bottom of a deep-enough hole you could see stars in the middle of the day.

And then Raymie's dad leaves town with a dental hygienist named Lee Ann Dickerson, and Raymie decides that's one loss she can do something about. If she can only win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire crown, perhaps her father will see her picture in the newspaper and realize how much he misses her. But to win the contest, Raymie has to do two things--she has to acquire a talent for baton twirling, and she has to come up with some good deeds for her application. At the first baton twirling lesson, Raymie meet two other potential contestants.

Louisiana Elefante, who lives on shoplifted canned tuna with her tiny grandmother in a crumbling old house with no electricity, says she is the orphan of the aerialists The Flying Elefantes, and she needs to win the cash prize to stay out of the County Home and rescue her cat, Archie, from the Very Friendly Animal Center where she was forced to leave him.

Beverly Tapinski apparently is already an expert twirler (and lock picker) who once made it as far as Georgia searching for her own missing father. But at the first class with Ida Nee, State Champion Twirler of Lister, Florida, Beverly confesses that she is there to sabotage the Little Miss Central Florida Tire Contest, that sorry symbol of false hope.

Despite the fact that they are at cross-purposes, the three girls form a sort of bond. Although Ida Nee never seems quite to get around to a lesson in baton twirling, Raymie persists in her plan. For a good deed for her resume', she checks out a biography of Florence Nightingale and timidly presents herself at the Golden Glen Nursing home to read to any available elderly person. It doesn't go well.

"Take my hand!" shouted Alice Nebbley, as Raymie walked down the hallway.

She had to go into Alice Nebbley's room and ask her if she wanted to be read to. It was a terrifying prospect. She knocked.

"Mrs. Nebbley?" whispered Raymie. "I'm here to do a good deed,. Would you like to hear about a bright and shining path and, um, Florence Nightingale?"

"Arrrrrggggghhhhhhh!" screamed Alice Nebbley. "I cannot, cannot bear the pain!"

It was the most terrifying noise Raymie had ever heard. A hand rose out of the covers. It was reaching for her--Raymie Clarke.

A Bright and Shining Path: The Life of Florence Nightingale leaped out of her hands and skittered under Alice Nebbley's bed.

A Bright and Shining Path is a library book and Raymie has to retrieve it, and Louisiana and Beverly agree to brave The Golden Glen with her to recover it. "We're the Three Rancheros," Louisiana loyally points out.

Raymie's good deed is a flop, but Louisiana persists in the hope that her good deed will be to rescue her cat Archie from the Very Friendly Animal Center. Hard-headed Beverly insists that the cinder block county animal control building is a place where no abandoned pet ever comes out alive, but with Louisiana's insistence, Beverly reluctantly agrees to provide her expertise in breaking and entering, and the Three Rancheros set out on a midnight rescue mission that changes their lives.

Kate di Camillo, winner of multiple Newbery awards, author of the renowned Because of Winn-Dixie, returns to her home country of central Florida in her latest novel, Raymie Nightingale, a story that deals with the power of human alliances to allay the loss that is the undercurrent of life.

Although the premise sounds a bit grim, di Camillo's writing is funny, luminous, uplifting, and not a little surreal, drawn from the only partly understood world view of The Three Rancheros. Through the power of her characterizations. di Camillo guides Louisiana Elefante, wheezy, fragile, half-starved, yet ever hopeful, to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire prize with her sweet voice in a movingly appropriate performance of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." Inspired by Mr. Staphopoulo's live-saving lessons, Raymie becomes famous with her underwater rescue of Louisiana. which gets her picture in all the newspapers, but reveals that the loss of her father is no longer important. And the perfectly named Beverly Tapinski, preteen tough-chick survivor, leads the way in showing her friends that they have what it takes to rise above all their losses.

"Fear is a big waste of time. I'm not afraid of anything," says Beverly Tapinski.

Says Kirkus Reviews, "Di Camillo's third-person narrative is written in simple words, yet somehow such modest prose carry the weight of deep meditations on life, death, friendship, and the meaning of life." Adds The Washington Post poignantly, "... surely this coming-of-age story is a fairy tale for our times. The young damsels in distress test their courage and rescue one another; and the book closes not with a conventional "happily ever after" but with a shared vision of the world as vast and yet intimately connected."

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