In Kate DiCamillo’s newest middle-grade novel, Ramie Nightingale, ten-year-old Raymie Clarke has cooked up a plan to convince her father to return home. She will win the 1975 Little Miss Florida Central Tire contest, and when her father sees the news stories about her triumph, he will leave the dental hygienist he has run off with and come back to his newly famous daughter.
Raymie decides to learn baton-twirling for the talent portion of the contest. At the first lesson she meets Louisiana Elefante, a frail girl with “swampy lungs” who is also determined to win the contest. Louisiana needs the prize money to rescue her cat, Archie, from the Very Friendly Animal Shelter, where “they will feed Archie three times a day and scratch him behind the ears exactly the way he likes,” according to her eccentric grandmother. But Raymie suspects that things aren’t quite as rosy for Archie as the trusting and innocent Louisiana believes.
The third baton student is the gum-snapping, knife-wielding Beverly Tapinski, who plans to enter the Little Miss Florida Central Tire contest with no aim of actually winning it: “My mother has entered me into every Little Miss contest there ever was, and I’m tired of it,” Beverly says. “And that is why I’m going to sabotage this one.” There’s more behind Beverly’s anger than she’s willing to admit, and Raymie soon learns that Beverly’s father lives in New York and that Beverly once tried to find him, getting only as far as the Georgia border. Sensitive Louisiana sees through Beverly’s bluster, saying simply, “I think she’s brokenhearted.”
All three protagonists are the only children of single mothers, and the world they live in is populated exclusively by women. Raymie’s own father appears only in memories and one brief phone call; her lifesaving coach and the school librarian, both men, are also only memories. The lone man with an on-stage speaking part—and he speaks just five words—is the janitor of the nursing home where Raymie reads a biography of Florence Nightingale to patients. Her extended “family” includes Mrs. Sylvester, a sybil-like figure who answers the phone at the family insurance company, and Mrs. Borkowski, an elderly neighbor. The receptionist at the nursing home, the patients there, the baton instructor—they’re all female.
There’s a lot that needs fixing in these girls’ lives. Beverly’s home life bears hints of abuse, and Louisiana’s grandmother is incapable of providing for her. The desertion of Raymie’s father has left her mother distracted by grief and shock. Louisiana asks the others, “Have you ever in your life come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depends on you?” They all have, and they’re terrified by the idea. But in the end each must find her own way to answer the question posed to Raymie the summer before by her lifesaving coach: “Are you going to be a problem causer or a problem solver?”
When Raymie loses her library book at the nursing home, the three concoct a plan to retrieve it. What follows is a series of events in which the gifts of all the girls are tested: Beverly’s fearlessness, Louisiana’s trusting nature, and Raymie’s resourcefulness will all be necessary to avert disaster and bring some stability into their lives.
Raymie Nightingale is written in languid prose that reflects the hot, sleepy town where the girls live. DiCamillo creates them in only a few deft strokes, and her plot, while quiet on the surface, shimmers with deep unrest, like waves of heat over a road. The two-time Newbery medalist has once again written a deceptively simple story that readers will return to often, finding more on each reading.
Tracy Barrett is a writer who lives in Nashville. Her tenth novel, a young-adult retelling of Cinderella entitled The Stepsister’s Tale, was published in 2014 by Harlequin TEEN.
Tagged: Children & YA