Just Imagine

Louisiana’s Way Home

Authored by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Amy June Bates
Published by Walker Books

Louisiana’s Way Home is a sequel, of sorts, to DiCamillo’s earlier book from 2016, Raymie Nightingale. It is possibly best that I declare upfront that I have a deep and deepening love for Raymie Nightingale and have written as much in the past. It really is a singular love, so you might need to consider whether I am subject to some kind of halo effect in saying that Lousiana’s Way Home is a very fine follow up to a perfectly fine book.

Raymie Nightingale is one of those creations that comes to mean so much that when a follow up was announced, I experienced a ripple of something – not exactly panic, not exactly worry or concern, but certainly something a little unbalancing. At the time of the announcement, kindly book folk excitedly pointed it out to me, then possibly wondered at my muted response. I went all thoughtful – as you might well do when DiCamillo is involved – and made my thank yous. I had to go off and have a think about whether this was a good thing or not. I had previously described Raymie Nightingale as ‘perfect’ quite deliberately. It felt complete. It felt just as it should be. What could a follow up possibly add without taking away something from that singular reading experience?

I am a worrier. I worried unduly.

Louisiana’s Way Home shares with Raymie Nightingale some characters, a proximal landscape (across a painfully ‘irrevocable state line’ to borrow from Louisiana’s typically eloquent fretting), and a particular economy of word and phrase in which emotions and events are carried by the words, not buried in them. It does not take Louisiana as its focus; it channels her. This is told from Louisiana’s point of view and that in itself marks it as quite distinct from its point of origin. One of the strengths of the earlier book was the time and space given over to ‘simply’ developing its main characters. Plot came second, but not distantly so. Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly, the third of the self-named Rancheros, were multi-dimensional in a way that called to mind the craft of a writer like Anne Tyler. A writer who truly likes, and is interested in humans. Although Raymie was the central concern of the book, Louisiana struck a chord with much of the book’s readership. I’ve described her previously as ‘a deceptively quivering creation. A Southern gothic heroine in child form, with a core of steel’ and that holds true. Like the best Southern gothic heroines, the tendency towards occasional histrionics and romantic tangents added an offbeat charm to the earlier book, and gives a curious mix of the old and the new to the voice of this new book. You might get a sense of what I mean from two stolen moments early on in the story:

It is truly a tragic tale. But never mind about that.
And then a short stretch later…

It seemed like a very sad thing to be jealous of a fake cow on the side of a truck.
I must warn you that a great deal of this story is extremely sad.

There is a breathlessly confidential aspect to Louisiana’s voice and it is often used to comically touching effect. Her account is riddled with ‘my goodnesses’ and ‘howevers’ and all manner of asides that might call to mind the likes of Katherine Hepburn in classic screwball comedy mode – articulating wildly at the speed of sound without getting too far from the point that she started from. Semantic gymnastics are a significant contributor to the books charm.

So what else is there? There is a painfully funny, increasingly sad relationship drawn out between Louisiana and her curse-afflicted grandmother. There is a classic – and classically satisfying – narrative around being forced to leave, and then finding, home. Above all else, as is always the case with DiCamillo, there is the drawing out of characters through carefully drawn dialogue and behaviours, as much as through the relative effectiveness of their hair-curling methods amongst other physical descriptions. Take Miss Lulu, the church organist, first met ‘pounding her way through a song by Bach’ who is neatly summed up through her tendency to eat caramels whatever the occasion:

Miss Lulu was eating a caramel while she played the organ. I could smell it. It is not at all professional to eat a caramel and play the organ at the same time.

Now, you might be wondering why this, of all things, is worthy of comment. Yet, oddly, it captures something of the person. The more we learn of her, the more we see of what she believes and what she does, the more that we see her failings in the face of a child in need, and so the more we might think, “yes, yes that is just the person that would reek of caramels when they are pounding through Bach.” It’s a rare skill, I think, this integration of character through accumulated act and detail that leads us to invent new archetypes: the caramel chewing organist; the misapprehending priest; the burned-too-many times motel owner; the curse-afflicted, life-on-the-lam, dentally challenged grandmother. And while I am on the subject of character and the way that they are developed and then intermingle and interweave, can I just make a simple, spoiler-free plea: take your time with Chapter 20. My goodness (to borrow from Louisiana) that is some subtly handled existentialism right there. Complete with caramel references. I read it last thing at night and had to e-mail myself to re-read and savour it in the morning.

I shan’t go on. I think I am clear on why this book earns its place alongside Raymie Nightingale on the discerning book buyer’s shelf. Much like E B White, DiCamillo writes for people not children. Children happen to be people. She seeks to honour her characters and writes up to her readers. She assumes that we are as interested and invested in her characters as she is. Louisiana’s Way Home is a touching read enlivened by the vivid voice of a girl who is stronger than she first appears and is every bit as vulnerable as anyone would be, given her circumstances. Because life is complicated like that. It take someone special to capture that. DiCamillo does just that. It is why she is my favourite contemporary children’s author. Time and time again.