Linking up with Housewifespice!
A little while ago, Housewifespice reviewed Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. Being one of the biggest (and probably oldest) DiCamillo fangirls around, I’d had her latest Newbery Award-winning novel (she’s got more than one!) on my shelf just calling out to be read. Stupidly, I read Housewifespice’s review before I’d even smoothed open the first page and risked letting those opinions affect my own. Now that some time has elapsed, I think I can let my impressions out:
Being in the KidLit Professional World, I get why it won the Newbery. The Newbery is awarded by librarians in the American Library Association, which is, in my personal perception, primarily liberal and progressive in comportment. Flora and Ulysses is the type of plot with the type of writing with the particular blend of heart and humor that suits their palate—not necessarily everyone else’s. Flora is a quirky character. Ulysses the Squirrel is a funny little guy, whose antics are very well illustrated in comic form as part of the narrative. Some of the precocious sentences are Exhibit A of “good writing.” But it’s not just a silly story for the sake of being silly—there’s some darkness and depth to the exquisite pain Flora endures throughout her parents’ separation and contentious relationship with a mother who doesn’t get her. The end wraps up on a light, positive note.
I don’t heartily recommend this one book for every person, like I would when I clutch my heart and gush about Tale of Despereaux (the other Newbery Award) or vociferously defend The Adventure of Edward Tulane and Tiger Rising as just as good as Because of Winn Dixie (the Newbery Honor). [Ed. Note: Ms. DiCamillo wrote also wrote The Magician’s Nephew, which I remember liking, but I guess not enough to have any strong opinion years later.] My lack of unbridled enthusiasm stems from the thought that on the whole, this book lacks a certain something. I would feel comfortable saying to a fellow Kate DiCamillo fan, yes, “read this book, you’ll like it.” To a parent, I would say, if your kid’s been assigned it or wants to read it, I’d recommend a conversation with the book. In all her work, there’s something Mrs. DiCamillo has about mothers (they’re either absent, dead, or like this one, not terribly good at it), and with Flora’s mom and the way she deals with her husband and Flora is just…I feel like it’s portrayed as too normal and acceptable; that the resolution not as satisfying for a kid reader who also feels unloved or misunderstood by his own parent.
While there are some literary virtues to this book, it’s hard to find any place it models Catholic virtues. As far as I know, Ms. DiCamillo doesn’t profess any particular creed, and so won’t purposefully infuse them into her work. But there is the matter of secular authors unwittingly imbuing the universal truths and beauty into their fiction, because the Law is written on our hearts, and we are designed to seek relationship with God. But a month later, I’m hard-pressed to recall where that might have been in Flora and Ulysses. Flora’s Dad is not a model for fatherhood or even manhood. The successful relationships are tangential—the neighbors who suck up the squirrel in the vacuum aren’t around enough to influence anyone; Dad’s apartment complex neighbor has been widowed (and though kids may love her; she’s kinda nutty). Flora is quick to forgive her mother, even though it isn’t necessarily “earned” (okay, forgiveness isn’t earned, but a gift given and received), but there is no real sense on the adults’ part that even in admitting faults and giving apologies that they are going to “sin no more.” I remember feeling like I couldn’t believe Flora’s mom was really going to stop being the flighty authoress who would learn to communicate better with her husband and child.
And now for my response about the possession element Housewifespice referred to. About halfway through the book, I thought she was referring to the squirrel and was all ready with rebuttals of how it was kind of Franciscan the way Flora interacted with the squirrel, and he could change his behavior like Gubbio the wolf. But no. The possession did refer to a person—specifically, Flora’s mom. Now, Ms. DiCamillo is on the record explaining that in her work, she does deliberately include a touch of sadness or darkness because she didn’t like it when books talked down to kids or told them they couldn’t handle the real things of life (that they actually sadly do handle in their own). It is one thing to acknowledge their pain and then show kids the light out of the darkness, to bring them healing or authentic happiness. But it is quite another to show them the darkness and improperly guide them through it.
I might have felt better if Ms. DiCamillo had Flora only think that possession was a possibility for her mom and have it clearly proven wrong. But what happens is that she leaves it ambiguous as to why Flora’s mother really did seem to go crazy and decidedly unmotherish and then not satisfactorily address her change in behavior and return to normalcy. Not having personal experience with possession myself, I was not terribly perturbed, but I do see how for Catholic children such a casual treatment of an actual spiritual danger is problematic. So for Catholic families, I wouldn’t endorse this book; but if they did decide to read it, I’d just temper the good points with this critique.