Kate Di Camillo’s “BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE” which won the Newbery Prize in 2000, has long been one of my favourite children's books, so I was very glad to hear about the publication of her newest novel, RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE.
RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE is not a Di Camillo fantasy but a story set in Florida during the summer of 1975. The tale is peopled with a variety of eccentric and alarming characters and yet, despite some dark themes, filled with a slightly dazed optimism.
The story opens as Raymie Clarke, the central character begins baton-twirling lessons with the alarming Ida Nee:
“Stop that nonsense immediately,” said Ida Nee.
Even though she was old – fifty at least – her hair was an extremely bright yellow, She wore white boots that came all the way up to her knees.
“I’m not kidding,” said Ida Nee.
Raymie believed her. Ida Nee didn’t seem much like a kidder.
Raymie isn't in love with baton-twirling. She's there because, two days earlier, her father ran off to New York City without leaving any contact address. Raymie wants to enter the Little Miss Central Florida Tire Competition, hoping that when her father sees her photograph in the newspaper, he’ll feel so proud he will call her and come home again.
She is standing in Ida Nee’s back yard with two unknown girls who both intend to enter the Competition too. The dainty Louisiana Elefante - given to fantasy, bunny-clips in her hair and fainting – needs the prize money for herself and her Granny while the brooding, knife-wielding, lock-picking Beverley Tapinski merely wants to sabotage the whole event. Louisiana enthusiastically names the odd trio the “Three Rancheros” and that summer's adventures make the three unlikely girls into firm friends.
Not content with just baton-twirling, Raymie decides to do a Good Deed for her competition interview. She visits the Golden Glen Nursing Home taking A Bright And Shining Path: The Life of Florence Nightingale, a library book - and hence the title of this novel. However, good-deed Raymie finds reading to the elderly is so alarming that she escapes, leaving the library book behind.
Once Louisiana and Beverley hear about the lost book, they escort Raymie back to Golden Glen and succeed in getting the book back, mostly. From there, Di Camillo develops the story into a strong and heartfelt experience with an inspired ending and a host of eccentric adult characters. Slowly, during their escapades, Raymie understands more about Louisiana and Beverley’s lives as well as her own.
Lightly based on her own childhood, Di Camillo’s RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE deals with longing, friendship, death, determination and bravery in a wonderfully unique and remarkable way – and unlike Di Camillo’s earlier “Winn-Dixie” novel - no dogs are involved in this story. There is, however, a search for Archie the cat, last left in the care of the Very Friendly Animal Centre as well as an incident with a caretaker’s canary and some devious driving by a tiny Granny. A remarkable book with a clear sense of time and place that feels enjoyable, gently humourous and often poignant.
Meanwhile, I will be lending my copy of RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE to a certain twelve-year-old girl when we meet. I wonder what she'll think of it?
nb. I was alerted to RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE’s arrival by a recent review on the Bookwitch blog. Thank you for the recommendation, Bookwitch!
published by Walker Books (2016) £9.99 hbk.
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