Louisiana’s Way Home

9780763694630  The openng lines of Kate DiCamillo’s new book for middle schoolers – Louisiana’s Way Home – reminded me of a resolution I have yet to complete:

“I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatver happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? They will have an answer. They will know.”

I usually avoid reading memoirs, assuming the writer’s memory will have been embellished and cleaned up. But writing my own story for posterity is appealing, especially because I could embellish and clean it up. What has been stopping me? Probably the suspicion of my story being only interesting to me.

Louisiana’s story begins with the curse her grandfather set in motion; mine would mirror it with my grandmother’s power of bestowing a curse, passed through generations.  Be assured, I have not tried wielding her power – not consciously, anyway – and not yet.

Louisiana’s story is “discovering who you are – and deciding who you want to be.”  For fans of DiCamillo, Louisiana may bring back thoughts of Raymie Nightingale, and Raymie is mentioned, but Louisiana has a more compelling story, leaving her friend behind in Florida and starting over in Georgia with a new friend, Burke, who can climb trees and outsmart the vending machine to get free peanuts.

After Granny and Louisiana drive off for a new life, so much happens: Granny loses all her teeth, tells about finding a baby on a pile of rubbish, and deserts the twelve year old. Nevertheless, Louisiana’s steady and optimistic outlook leads her to a new family, a new life, and a happy ending.  The story is at once a sad lesson in hope and a caution to not wallow in fate.  Destiny is what you make it.   Louisiana is abandoned by someone she trusts, tries to work things out on her own, consults with a minister, and finally chooses forgiveness with a new family.   Burke’s grandfather sums up the point of the story when he tells her to  “Take what is offered to you.”

The curse?  Turns out Louisiana never really had one –    only Granny has to contend with that problem.

And DiCamillo delivers another poignant tale of a brave little girl who gets the support of friends from unlikely places and in unexpected ways.  We all need that now and then.

Related ReviewRaymie Nightingale

Aquarium by David Vann

9780802123527_p0_v3_s260x420Hard to read but compelling – in Aquarium David Vann tells the coming of age story of Caitlin, a sensitive and lonely twelve-year-old who lives in near poverty with her mother, a construction worker, in Seattle.  The story seems innocuous at first as Vann describes Caitlin’s after school visits to the Seattle Aquarium, and laces the pages with beautiful pictures of the fish Caitlin has befriended.  Throughout the story, Vann offers philosophical notes attached to this underwater world, and creates analogies to human action.

Caitlin befriends an elderly man who shares her love of fish, and they meet every day until he asks to meet her mother.   When his true identity is revealed, the plot turns to darkness and cruelty.  As much as Caitlin’s mother struggles in life – laboring at a job she hates, barely making enough money to pay the rent, angry at the world for her misery – she has shielded Caitlin from her past and the seething rage she keeps hidden.  But when this man reenters her life, her fury is released – along with scenes of horrible abuse and shocking inhumanity.  These descriptions are difficult to read.

Caitlin cautiously navigates around her mother’s anger, and even manipulates her into changes for the better.  At the same time, Caitlin is awakening to her own sexuality, and tells some of the story in flashback – reassuring the reader that she does survive.

Alaskan David Vann is a new author for me, and I requested this book from the library after reading a thoughtful and intriguing review from a fellow reviewer.  In researching some of Vann’s other books, I found references to more dark and dreary lives, and a penchant for family violence.  Aquarium, with its psychological heaviness, is described as “far more civilized” than his other work.  Perhaps with a young pre-teen protagonist, he has toned the wretchedness down a little – but not much.   Aquarium is a powerful and heart-wrenching story, but not for everyone.