Some books I love from the moment I start them, others grow on me, so that by the end I love them.
I have four absolutely-perfect-best-ever books, and Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux is one. (I’ll try to talk about the others later.) My love for The Tale of Desperaux began at the very beginning, when the mother mouse declares, “All that work for nothing… It is so sad. It is such a disappointment.” She is a french mouse, and disappointed that her newly born son is alive. Oh my heart. Then she gives her son his name, “Despereaux, for all the sadness, for the many despairs of this place. Now where is my mirror?”
The book only got better from there. It was perfect. It was everything I ever wanted in a story, and more than that – it was everything I never realized I wanted.
I love to discover such unexpected words.
I haven’t read Kate DiCamillo’s most recent book about a young girl twirling batons in Florida, but I did recently pick up her second Newberry Winner: Flora and Ulysses.
DiCamillo is a very sneaky writer. Her writing style appears oh so ordinary, and simple. Her books typically have narrators. The stories usually involve children and animals, and always come with eccentric side-characters. Anyone can write a story about a girl and her squirrel, who happens to have superpowers, right?
About the story:
Ulysses the Squirrel has an extraordinarily encounter with a high powered vacuum cleaner, and somehow gains amazing abilities. While most squirrels, the narrator explains, think only about food – not Ulysses. He discovers that he can type words, that he is a poet, and, well, he can also fly. That’s about it. But it’s enough that young Flora recognizes him as a superhero and knows deeply in her heart that he can fight villains and save people. Who needs saving? Well, Flora, of course, and who is the evil arch-villain causing Flora so much misery? Flora’s mother.
Flora’s parents have divorced. Her mother is unhappy, Flora’s father is unhappy, and Flora is unhappy. Flora hides this unhappiness behind a cynical nature – even if she just barely understands what being cynical is all about. When she declares herself a cynic, the neighbor woman, Dr. Meescham, replies, “Bah, cynics…. Cynics are people who are afraid to believe.” And believing happens to be Flora’s most important role in this story. That’s because of Ulysses. “The world will misunderstand him” Flora realizes early on. “Was it Flora’s job to believe in Ulysses?”
I didn’t immediately fall in love with Flora and Ulysses, but DiCamillo’s writing sneaked up on me and zapped me good. Yes, the story is silly and weaves together in wonderfully weird ways. You just have to look beyond the delightfully silly hijinks of a squirrel writing poetry – because if you do look beyond, there are moments of unexpected brilliance. DiCamillio’s observations about the world can come out of nowhere and they always feel so powerful. Truthful.
When Flora meets her neighbor’s nephew – William Spiver – he declares, “The world is a treacherous place when you can’t see.”
“Flora didn’t bother pointing out to him that the world was a treacherous place when you could see.”
Yes, yes it is Flora.
“TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!”
The book often reuses this line, making it stand out even more in a stylized, uppercase font. Again and again it repeats “TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!” The line is actually the name of a comic, kind of like a ‘worse case scenario/strange facts about the world / advice column’ for children. Flora takes its advice to heart.
“TERRIBLE THINGS” do happen to Flora – maybe not the end of the world, not death or violent things – after all this is a book for young-readers, but she still feels threatened and unloved, especially when she learns her mother wants to kill Ulysses.
However, while there are lots of unexpected moments, the one that really got me – that utterly shocked me – was the bit about the trolls.
Beware The Trolls
It starts when Flora first meets Dr. Meescham, an elderly widow who lives next to Flora’s father. Flora goes to her hoping to find a doctor to examine Ulysses, but Dr. Meescham is not a medical doctor, she has a doctorate in philosophy. She also used to live in a place called Blundermeecen, and speaks with an accent that feels vaguely Eastern European to me. She often talks about her time in Blundermeecen.
“When I was a girl in Blundermeecen people were often getting concussions – gifts from the trolls, you understand.”
Then, a few sentences later she brings up the trolls again, saying, ” ‘Always, always one was knitting outfits for the little trolls.’
‘What little trolls?” said Flora. “And where’s Blundermeecen?’
‘Never mind about the trolls for now. I meant to say that life was gloomy then and one was always knitting.’ “
Like Flora, I found the sentence utterly confusing. What trolls? This isn’t a fairy tale story – it is set in the real world. Why is this old woman talking about trolls? Is she maybe senile? Or just a little kooky and strange?
At first, the trolls sounded like funny little fairies to me, like little hobgoblins, but harmless pests. They were just a strange story from a weird old lady, one who makes jam sandwiches and has a peculiar love for her horsehair sofa.
It is only later that I realized that the trolls represent something real and terrifying. When the trolls come up again, the unexpected repetition made me consider them differently.
“When I was a girl in Blundermeecen, I did not sleep. Who knows why? It could be some existential terror related to the trolls. Or it could be simply because I do not sleep. Sometimes there are no reason. Often, most of the time, there are no reasons. The world cannot be explained.”
These trolls are a terror that cannot be explained; a terror than keeps a young girl from sleeping.
Perhaps, I’m reading more into these trolls than what was intended, but there is something more to them. This isn’t a fantasy story. The trolls must signify something dangerous and real. They’re not a harmless little creatures. Not when they could terrify a young girl, since they forced her to knit for them, and especially not after we learned that “the trolls” gave people concussions.
Throughout the story, Dr. Meescaham brings up her past.
” ‘This sofa,’ said Dr. Meescham, ‘is the sofa of my grandmother. She was born on this sofa. In Blundermeecen. She lived the whole of her life there. And she is buried there in a dark wood. But that is a different story.
What I mean to say is that when I was a girl in Blundermeecen, I sat on this sofa and spoke to my grandmother about inconsequential things, well into the gloom of the evening. That is what a girl in Blundermeecen did in those days. She was expected to speak of inconsequential things as the gloom of the evening descended.’ “
It wasn’t a happy place, Blundermeecen.
“This is how it was when I was a girl in Blundermeecen. Like this. Always opening the door in the middle of the night and finding the face of someone you wanted to see. Well, not always. Sometimes it was the face of someone you did not want to see.
But always, always in Blundermeecen, you opened the door because you could not stop hoping that on the other side of it would be the face of someone you loved.”
So, while there was hope in their hearts, this young girl and her family were still woken in the middle of the night. Who would do this? Who would have a ‘face..you did not want to see’? Was it the trolls? Clearly, calling them trolls is a euphemism, rather than call them the police, or the army, or terrorists, or gestapo, or anything from the real-world. Although, we don’t know what they really are, and it ultimately doesn’t matter, there is ample evidence that something, or someone terrorized Dr Meescham as a young girl.
I did not expected this in a light-hearted story about a squirrel writing poetry.
A deeper layer.
The story of Flora and Ulysses already has other layers: Flora is afraid of being alone, she worries that her mother loves a lamp more than her, and Flora’s mother is afraid that Flora will be unloved and friendless if she spends too much time with a squirrel.
This is why Kate DiCamillo is so sneaky. The story is about more than squirrels and poetry. There is the universe expanding, we learn William Spiver’s story and why he pretends to be blind, and the squirrel poetry is pretty delightful at the end.
I love finding something unexpected in a simple little kids story.
It makes storytelling so much more appealing. It makes writing so challenging. I want this to happen in my own stories. Something unexpected.
“What do I lose if I choose to believe? Nothing”