Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick Press, 2016)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
On Tuesday, I called a friend of mine to tell him something that felt, in that moment, desperately important. “I am reading the perfect book,” I said. “There is just enough and nothing extra. Each line is critical. It is perfect.” The book, of course, was Raymie Nightingale. When I closed the cover this afternoon, after staring for a while at the last page, I was crying the way you cry at simple miracles. Kate DiCamillo called this book “the absolutely true story of [her] heart.” I understand. I texted my friend: “It is about childhood and grief and hopefulness. It reminds me of how I felt as a kid.”
The story itself is about ten-year-old Raymie Clark, who signs up for baton-twirling lessons in an attempt to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975 pageant. Raymie’s interest isn’t in the prize money or the glory, however; she wants to win the pageant because two days before her father ran away with a dental hygienist, and she hopes that if he sees her picture in the paper, he’ll come home. At her first lesson, Raymie meets fearless saboteur Beverly Tapinski, who plans to ruin the pageant from inside, and glittery, delicate Louisiana Elefante, who lives with her grandmother in a house without food or electricity and wants to win the pageant to rescue her cat Archie from the Very Friendly Animal Center. The girls, all fatherless, band together to attempt to solve the problems they see in their own lives – problems which the adults that care for them seem to find insurmountable.
But, like nearly all perfect things, Raymie Nightingale is more than a description of it’s component parts. It is a complicated and multi-faceted book boiled down to a series of entwined images: Mrs. Borkowski in her lawn chair in the middle of the road, a janitor whistling to a small yellow bird, a pain-stricken old woman screaming for someone to take her hand. It is a book about grief, and desperation, and confusion. On the first page, Louisiana Elefante sets the stage for the entire book when she says, before fainting:
“The more I think about, the more terrified I am. I am too terrified to go on!” (1)
But the book does go on, and so does Louisiana Elefante, and so does Raymie Clarke. And that is the beauty of it – it is a book that not only acknowledges how difficult it can be to keep living, but also reminds the world that those feelings can and often do exist in the lives of children. It is a book about hope, and about resolving oneself to the truth, and about finding beauty in something as mundane as the light shining on a linoleum floor. It is a book which measures the width and height of a soul, and the way each moment can make us feel entirely full or entirely empty. And it is about stories. Near the end of the book, Louisiana Elefante reads to Raymie from her book on Florence Nightingale. She says:
“Raymie felt her heart thud inside of her.
‘Where does it say that?’ she said.
‘It’s written in the book in my head,’ said Louisiana. She tapped her head. ‘And that’s sometimes better than the actual book. And by that, I mean that sometimes I read the words I want to be there instead of the words that are actually there. Just like Granny does.’ Louisiana looked up at Raymie in a very serious way. ‘Do you want me to keep going?’
‘Yes,’ said Raymie.” (206)
In Raymie Nightingale, three girls come together to deal with grief in different ways – through anger, through sadness, through denial. They discover their own flaws, and the flaws that plague the people they love. This is a book for everyone, because it is a book that wonders about our purpose here, when there is so much pain but also so much beauty. It is a horribly sad, wonderfully hopeful story. I finished this book only hours ago, and I am ready to read it again.