Author: Kate DiCamillo
Publisher: Candlewick Press (2016)
Raymie Clarke has a plan.
Two days ago, her father left home with a dental hygienist. If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father will see Raymie’s picture in the paper and (maybe) come home.
To win, not only does Raymie have to do good deeds and learn how to twirl a baton; she also has to contend with Louisiana Elefante, who has a show-business background, and Beverly Tapinski, who’s determined to sabotage the contest. But as the competition approaches, loneliness, loss, and unanswerable questions draw the three girls together — and challenge each of them to come to the rescue in unexpected ways. ♦
Big People and the Small, Sharp Pain They Cause
I discovered Raymie Nightingale while going through the list of NPR’s Best Books of 2016. I was immediately drawn to the minimalist cover and got excited when I saw that the book was written by two-time Newbery Medalist, Kate DiCamillo.
At first glance, the cover design made it seem like the book was written for and about young adults. It was not. The book was definitely intended for the middle-grade audience, but with a more serious, more mature tone of storytelling.
Set in the summer of 1975, Raymie Nightingale tells the story of Raymie Clarke whose dad abandoned Raymie and her mom to be with a dental hygienist just two days prior.
It was a great tragedy because Raymie’s father had disgraced himself.
It was also a great tragedy because Raymie was fatherless.
The thought of that—the fact of it—that she, Raymie Clarke, was without a father, made a small, sharp pain shoot through Raymie’s heart every time she considered it.
Sometimes the pain her heart made her feel too terrified to go on. Sometimes it made her want to drop to her knees.
Although it shouldn’t come as a surprise, I still find it a wonder how I’m easily drawn to stories involving a parent leaving their child behind. An interlude: according to a 2011 report by the Census Bureau, divorce rates in America took a significant rise during the 1970s. That’s just divorce, which Google defines as the legal dissolution of marriage by a court or competent body. Divorce was not mentioned in Raymie Nightingale. If you add the rate of parental separation, that makes up for a larger percentage of broken families in the U.S. at the time. But I digress.
Lifelong Friendships in Unlikely Places
One of the things I loved about the book is how Kate DiCamillo brought together a trio of unlikely friends. Raymie, the lonely, fatherless girl, would cross paths with Louisiana Elefante and Beverly Tapinski in a baton twirling lesson. Kate DiCamillo sheds light on Louisiana’s and Beverly’s characters with passages like these:
Beverly rolled her eyes. “Here,” she said. She held out her hand. It was a grubby hand. The fingers were smudged, and the nails were dirty and chewed down. But in spite of its grubbiness, or maybe because of it, it was a very certain-looking hand.
“Oh my goodness,” said Louisiana. “I’m just filled up with feathers and regrets. And fears. I have a lot of fears.” (Louisiana also fainted during their first baton twirling lesson.)
When Louisiana asked Raymie and Beverly if they have ever, in their lives, come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depended on them, Raymie and Beverly said yes.
Raymie felt something expanding inside of her. It felt like a gigantic tent billowing out.
This, Raymie knew, was her soul.
Heartaches That Bind
The chapters in Raymie Nightingale are short. Reading the book felt like peeling an onion one layer at a time. Readers would learn more about Lousiana’s and Beverly’s lives with small details here and there. Later, the girls would realize that they were bound by a common thread.
“Beware of the brokenhearted,” said the grandmother, “for they will lead you astray.”
Outside, it started to rain even harder.
“That’s all of us, though, Granny, isn’t it?” said Louisiana over the noise of the rain. “Aren’t we all brokenhearted?”
That was probably one of my favorite parts in the book. For those of you who haven’t read the book, I would not spoil the story by giving away Louisiana’s and Beverly’s life stories. I leave that for you to find out. Suffice it to say that each of the girls—Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly—had their hearts broken, one way or another. Their heartaches would make their friendship burn brighter and keep their souls from shrinking. (Refer to pages in which Raymie talks about the swelling and shrinking of the soul—her soul, in particular.)
The Battlefield of Life and the Nightingale in You
I loved the part when Kate DiCamillo talked about “soldiers who have fallen on the battlefield of life.” This was the part when Louisiana read a book out loud to Raymie, and the book was called A Bright and Shining Path: The Life of Florence Nightingale.
Florence Nightingale helps those who have fallen on the battlefield of life. She comes to them with her magic globe and makes them well… Inside the magic globe that Florence Nightingale carries, there are wishes and hopes and love. And all of these things are very tiny and also very bright. And there are thousands of wishes and hopes and love things, and they move around in the magic globe, and that’s what Florence uses to see by. That is how she sees soldiers who have fallen on the battlefield of life.
Words of hope, resilience, and encouragement reverberate throughout the passage. Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly unknowingly became each other’s Florence Nightingale, as they passed around magic globes filled with love. The ending closed a chapter in the girls’ lives but they were ushered into a new chapter that shines brighter than ever before. ♦
Raymie Nightingale is a 2016 National Book Award finalist.