In her newest collection of essays, These Precious Days, the novelist Ann Patchett writes about the children’s author Kate DiCamillo. Each of her books, Patchett believes, is an elegantly crafted jewel—which can be read in an evening! I followed her model and began a DiCamillo binge, which has been richly rewarded.
The adult characters tend to be clueless, sunk in their own misery, or absent. (For example: Raymie’s dad ran off with the dental hygienist and Sistine’s with his secretary who can’t type. Rob’s father hit him so hard, dad ripped his jacket sleeve—because the boy cried at his mother’s funeral.) Given that pattern, the reader can focus on the children, who are all deeply hurt but magnificent.
Raymie, 10-year old heroine of Raymie Nightingale has the profound insight that “we are all heartbroken.” Nevertheless, she bands together with two other girls from baton class to right what wrongs they can. (A clue to their pathos: her friend Louisiana gets excited about going to Raymie’s home, asking eagerly, “will there be dinner?” Although meals aren’t a regular occurrence for the child, hunger doesn’t dim her pluck. When the filling station manager offers her a free pack of peanuts, she takes eighteen.) All three girls, for various reasons, want to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest, (DiCamillo wryly delights in southern shlock) but they don’t let competition overshadow an alliance that leads to a small, satisfying triumph.
How could anyone resist the opening sentence of The Tiger Rising? “That morning, after he discovered the tiger, Rob went and stood under the Kentucky Star Motel sign and waited for the school bus just like it was any other day.” The caged tiger, we discover, symbolizes the wounded children’s emotions stuffed tightly into locked suitcases. His new friend Sistine (yup, named for the chapel) is filled with anger as he is with grief. But she can recite the Blake poem, and he can deftly carve wood. Within one hundred twenty-one pages, they reach a healing which is neither contrived nor gimmicky, but springs from natural, limited human efforts. (Though Sistine does recognize Willie May, a motel maid, the only adult they can confide in, as a “prophetess.”) Despite the tiger’s death, the reader ends with a comforting sense of closure and new beginnings. No wonder it was a finalist for the National Book Award.
The Magician’s Elephant could be a theological parable of grace and redemption. Ten-year old Peter lives with a crazy, abusive soldier who has always told him that his little sister Adele is dead. But when Peter gets the first hint that might not be true, he follows an arduous path, people by colorful characters, to discover her. Not to spoil the plot: when he finds her alive, he carries her as if he could do so forever. Even when she leaves the room for a brief time, he’s elated by her return. The author earns the insight that could’ve come from John’s gospel: “she was struck with a peculiar feeling of having been well and truly seen, having at last been found and saved.” As Meister Eckhart and other contemplatives have taught, we are truly seen in God’s gaze, the only one that matters. We rejoice because we are finally found.
As a child, I’d sometimes leave the library with utter glee because my arms were full of books. I felt the same way after scooping up the DiCamillo offerings at our local library. And blessings abound—I’ve got three more to read!