Only in the USA, and maybe only in Central Florida in the summer of 1975, would 10-year-old Raymie Clarke, Louisiana Elefante and Beverley Tapinski have found themselves in the same baton-twirling class, pupils of ex-champion baton-twirler, Ida Nee. Kate DiCamillo, twice winner of the Newbery Medal, is on familiar ground. A pre-text fact-page reveals that she grew up in Central Florida in the 1970s, where she took baton-twirling lessons. Her father left the family when she was very young which, we will discover, is also the experience of Raymie and Beverley. Like them, she longed for her father’s return. There are further overlaps with her characters’ experiences; the fact-page concludes: “Raymie’s story is entirely made up. Raymie’s story is the absolutely true story of my heart.” So that’s cleared that up, then.
Well, it does at least suggest a certain ambiguity. What seems simple here, isn’t. What seems like a comic narrative in its language and events, is also a story of loss, emptiness, helplessness and fears. Raymie is taking baton-twirling classes because she needs them to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest; then her picture will be in the paper, her father will see it, and come home. That’s the plan. Her classmates don’t promise too much. The orphaned Louisiana Elefante (daughter of the late trapeze artists, The Flying Elefantes – maybe) faints frequently. Beverley’s opening line is: “My name is Beverley Tapinski and my father is a cop, so I don’t think that you should mess with me.” She’s also an expert lock-picker.
Nevertheless, the three become fast friends; in fact, Louisiana insists, they’re more than friends, they’re The Three Rancheros, here to right a wrong. They support each other through all their summer adventures. These involve mostly failing to do Good Deeds in The Golden Glen Nursing Home; checking out The Very Friendly Animal Centre while looking for Archie, a lost cat; meeting several dysfunctional and irascible adults; liberating a canary belonging to a Chopin-playing caretaker; and non-swimmer Louisiana being catapulted into a very deep lake from a runaway shopping trolley with a wonky wheel. That sort of thing.
Through these escapades, despite the hollowness and anxieties at the core of their lives, they begin to find fulfilment in supporting each other. Their secrets emerge. Men, it has to be said, don’t come out of this novel well. Raymie’s father has run away with a dental hygienist, Beverley’s cop father lit out for New York City years ago. Mr Staphopoulos, Raymie’s life-saving coach, is a good guy, but he leaves the novel just as it’s getting started, heading for North Carolina with Edgar, his life-saving dummy, grinning in the back seat of his car. However, he’s left Raymie with great life-saving skills which come in handy with the episode of the sinking shopping trolley.
There is something essentially American about the deceptive comedy and simplicity of the summer’s adventures. The children are innocently wise, vulnerable and yet increasingly strong, breaking free of the damaged adults around them. Events and dialogue are not naturalistic – they belong, rather, to fable, so that everything ultimately leads towards the girls discovering what DiCamillo doesn’t flinch from calling their souls. (Would a UK author risk this?) Raymie’s wellbeing is measured by how her soul is doing. Sitting in the back of a car driven with lunatic abandon by Louisiana’s granny, she realises her growing love for her new friends: “Something was happening to her. Her soul was getting bigger and bigger and bigger. She could feel it lifting her off the seat, almost.”
The ‘Nightingale’ of the title? That’s from a book recommended to Raymie by her school’s librarian, Mr Option (another good guy making a brief but influential appearance – “tall, and lonely and hopeful”). The book is A Bright and Shining Path; The Life of Florence Nightingale. By the end of the summer, Raymie can see what Mr Option saw. Like Florence, she’s a helper – and not only with reference to shopping trolleys. She’d really helped her friends in many ways. “She was Raymie Nightingale, coming to the rescue.”