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louisiana's way home

2 january 2019

Louisiana's Way Home is a conventional prestige children's novel for the late 2010s, which is to say that it's an offbeat story about unconventional people, told by a distinctive, precocious narrator. At times, Louisiana seems like the only grounded character in a world of fey and unreliable adults. Her grandmother/guardian is downright demented, and the residents of the Georgia town where that grandmother abandons Louisiana range from serenely wacky to barely clued-in. A great many children's books these days are a variation on this theme – I almost said formula.

Well, it is a bit of a formula, and Louisiana's Way Home is precious and heartfelt by turns, in ways that characterize all of Kate DiCamillo's work. The narrator, Louisiana herself, is perpetually agog, hypersensitive, unbearably cute, edgy, saccharine, and insightful by turns – sometimes all at once. In this respect, she resembles characters in The Tale of Despereaux and Flora and Ulysses, books I've characterized as being somewhat excessively sentimental at the same time that they convey real desire and hurt – a slightly contradictory mix, but distinctive, and genuinely touching.

Louisiana's Way Home draws its energy from the daft grandmother's idée fixe that she is under a "curse of sundering." To be apart from those we love, Louisiana and her grandmother insist, is the primal curse. Such a curse can be a metaphor for all kinds of separation, from divorce to abandonment to death. In the grandmother's case, DiCamillo casts the sundering as literally visceral. Her father (thus Louisana's great-grandfather) was a magician who sawed his wife in half and declined to put her back together again. This originary flaw determines the trajectory of the lives of generations to come.

Nowhere, of course, does Louisiana's grandmother tip to the possibility that her dad just couldn't cope with living with her mother anymore. (Or vice-versa.) Louisiana herself, though, must deal with a similar situation when her grandmother (a) drives her from Florida to Georgia without much preamble and (b) takes off in turn for Nebraska, oblivious to preteen Louisiana's fate. Of course – this being a children's book – Louisiana finds a support network, in the form of an inviting foster family who bake gorgeous cakes, tame wild birds, and have a knack for tilting the best stuff out of motel vending machines.

Honestly, I rebelled at times against the tone and vocabulary of Louisiana's Way Home, which as I say borders on preciosity; but throughout, I wanted to learn what would happen to our heroine, and I kept reading all the way through. This has been a pattern for me since DiCamillo's breakthrough novel Because of Winn-Dixie, and I guess at this point will likely be the case with each new book of hers that I read. Ultimately, among contemporary children's novels, you could do infinitely worse.

DiCamillo, Kate. Louisiana's Way Home. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2018.