Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
I picked up this book because of the author, and the enigmatic – or meaningful, as Betsy Bird calls it – cover. And then, I almost put it down, because it is set in 1975.
It is hard for me to imagine the seventies as a time anyone wants to read about, much less venerate as “historical.” After all, to be antique, an object must be at minimum a mere hundred years old; novels set in the seventies and eighties feel… indulgent and nostalgic; more about the authors than the readers. But, on the other hand, the 20th century is now considered “historical fiction,” so setting my hesitation aside, I read on.
Synopsis: Raymie Clarke’s plan for the summer is this: learn to twirl a baton in Ms. Ida Nee’s baton-twirling class; win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975 competition; get her name and picture in the newspaper… and thus create enough interest in her life and well-being to make her father come back from where he’s run off with the dental hygienist. By all accounts, it was a reasonable plan. It was something Raymie could hold up to herself when she was afraid, when her mother was silent and sat in the sunroom, staring into space: she had a Plan that was going to Fix Things.
Unfortunately, other people had plans – and troubles of their own. Louisiana Elefante, a tiny, blonde asthmatic, wants to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975 so that she can claim the prize money and free her cat from the pound. Unspoken is her hope that they can use the money to then eat more than tunafish and she and her grandmother can stop running from Marsha Jean, the invisible social worker who might put her in foster care. Beverly Tapinski’s plan is to sabotage the pageant – somehow. With a knife. Beverly hates Little Miss pageants, is tired of her mother signing her up for them, and has tried to run away to her father in New York, twice. She is angry and fearless – and sometimes bruised.
Raymie strikes out alone, at first, to do a good deed so that she can list it on her Little Miss application, but soon she, Louisiana, and Bev find themselves doing things together… not willingly, at first, but Louisiana’s winsome imagination draws them, and Raymie is eager for something brighter and better than life at home. Even Bev finds herself charmed, despite herself. The girls have more in common than Raymie first believed, and in the end, relying on each other’s strengths saves them
Observations: I did not love this book, but found it …complex and textured. The people Raymie meets during the course of the novel add a depth and nuance that is unexpected. There are cynical elderly people and optimistic ones; haughty ones living on their past successes, like Ms. Ida, and ones running from their current responsibilities, like Raymie’s dad. Among her peers, Raymie’s problems don’t seem so very big to her. While it’s true that her father left them, and her mother is depressed and silent, Louisiana, in addition to her very serious asthma, is food insecure, living in a house with no power and no furniture, and a grandmother who is very old and teaching her survival tricks to help her live outside of the county assistance she needs. Beverly poses as self-confident and brave, but she is furious at being abandoned by her father, always running away to be with him, and fighting with adults – to the point of having physical altercations at home. With all of this, the time period and the setting weren’t… significant.
“Issues” were obviously not something which were talked about in school in the 70’s, as Raymie didn’t automatically respond by speaking with an adult when it was revealed that Louisiana was food insecure, whereas I think most of today’s ten-year-olds would at least mention it to someone in passing. Infidelity seems to be much less common, and much more a source of shame to those left behind. By avoiding the obvious stereotypes, DiCamillo avoids a dated feel – no super bell bottoms and flower children or anything – but, to be honest, I don’t think adding a year is going to be really significant to young readers.
An interesting quibble I did have with the novel setting, though, is that it depicted central Florida without any people of color in it. The only people in the novel who are of a different class than Raymie other than Louisiana signal this by speaking non-standard American English. These two nurses are kindly, immediately helpful, speaking endearments and providing tea and sympathy on the phone to Raymie’s mother, and to a soaked and shivering Raymie, a sweater. The author provides no racial description for them, but I find myself hoping that those ladies are white with beehived brunette hair, because they move perilously close to the enveloping, comforting Mammy stereotype otherwise.
Conclusion: I’m still not sure about children’s books set in the 70’s and 80’s, but this book in particular explored meaningful relationships with old people, divorce, grief, abuse, depression, food insecurity and poverty, the idea of having a plan to fix the world, and recovering when that plan shows itself to be flawed, and kind of going with the flow and finding new plans, new purposes, and new friends. Not much happens… but, in a way, everything — life — does.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library You can find RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE by Kate DiCamillo at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!