PICTURE BOOKS

MIDDLE GRADE

YOUNG ADULT

Sep 10, 2020

Retro Post #8: Significant Detail in Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

This month we are celebrating the book birthday of Lindsay Lackey’s debut novel All the Impossible Things. And we wanted to bring back a two-part post that Lindsay wrote about one of her favorite books. She maps out how DiCamillo uses significant detail of character and setting to create a story readers fall in love with. Every detail is chosen with care and woven together to make meaning–a great lesson for any writer. We hope you learn as much from this post as we have! –Anne-Marie Strohman


craft review by Lindsay Lackey

It’s no surprise that a two-time Newbery medalist is a master of her craft. Kate DiCamillo’s books are international bestsellers and have garnered numerous awards. She’s known for writing complex and compelling characters, rich Southern settings, and crisp, clear prose—all of which are on display in her 2018 middle grade novel, Louisiana’s Way Home.

DiCamillo’s books are not very long, but they are always pitch-perfect and richly crafted. One of the questions I ask myself again and again as I read her work is: how does she do it? How does she write such complex yet simple stories? Stories that are bursting with memorable characters, stories woven with universal emotions and themes, yet stories that also feel intimate and unique?

The answer—or one of them, anyway—is specific, significant detail.

Louisiana’s Way Home is a mere 227 pages long, with plenty of white space and semi-large font. According to the Accelerated Reader Bookfinder, it has only 31,222 words.

In other words, this book doesn’t take up a lot of real estate. Yet, DiCamillo manages to build Louisiana’s emotionally complex and rich world through the use of details that serve a dual purpose: they illuminate as well as foreshadow.

Setting

Choosing Significant Details

Building a solid setting depends on details, but it is all too easy to go overboard here. Many writers pack in setting details, perhaps believing that it is the number of details that matters in building a rich world. 

DiCamillo, however, is usually quite spare in her description of setting. She proves that the number of details do not matter—but the significance of them does.

Significant Details that Illuminate

For example, when Louisiana describes the Good Night, Sleep Tight Motel, where she and Granny are staying, she only mentions a handful of things: the vending machine, the shag carpet, the alligator, the cleanliness of the place, and the curtains in their room.

 First, the vending machine in the motel office:

…it was stocked with the most amazing array of things. There were toothbrushes with little tubes of toothpaste attached to them, and candy bars with caramel and nuts, and also bags of peanuts, and rain bonnets that were folded up into neat little squares, and packages of crackers with orange cheese in the middle of them

Her observations of the vending machine not only give us a sense of the type of place this motel is, they also illuminate, giving us crucial insight into Louisiana’s situation and soul. She firsts notes the toothbrush and toothpaste, which are practical necessities. We can’t help but wonder if she even has a toothbrush with her, considering how quickly Granny pulled her out of bed and put her in the car. 

Most of the details she notes in the machine are food related, reminding us that Louisiana is hungry. She’s hungry in body—for Granny never does stop to feed her on the road—and she’s hungry in spirit. Things like caramel and nuts and orange cheese are such novelties to her that she is actually excited about them. For many children, this paltry selection of food might be unappetizing, or at the very least, unexciting. For Louisiana, it is “a miracle.” 

Significant Details that Foreshadow

When Louisiana describes the rest of the motel office, the details she relays foreshadow what’s to come. She notes the enormous taxidermy alligator who is “dead in a ferocious pose.” She also notes that the curtains in their room don’t seem to fit. The palm tree pattern is incongruous with the Georgia setting. She believes the curtains should have peaches on them instead. “Curtains should be state appropriate,” she says. “Lots of things, in fact, should be different from how they are” (64).

Since the Good Night, Sleep Tight Motel is where Louisiana is later abandoned by Granny—which is frightening (like the alligator) and should be different (like the curtains)—these significant details of setting act as small moments of foreshadowing, while also illuminating Louisiana’s needs and desires.

In contrast to the uncomfortable details of the motel, Louisiana observes very different things about Burke Allen’s house. 

We see that the Allen house is a place that feeds her before we learn anything else about it. She and Burke share bologna sandwiches on her first visit, and Louisiana is so comforted by her full belly–the first time her belly has been full the entire novel–that she tells Burke the entire story of her family’s “curse of sundering.” We learn later that the house often smells like cake. And, as Louisiana says, “‘cake’ is a very good word in general” (134).

However, Burke’s house is the only house in the woods, which also reflects how the Allens are a bit outside of the norm. But considering that the “norm” in Louisiana’s life, and in this small town, has so far proven untrustworthy, the fact that the Allens are slightly on the outside is a good thing. Perhaps being on the outside of the chaotic and often cold world she’s known so far will bring Louisiana more security than she’s felt before.Again—the detail illuminates.

We also discover that the house is painted “pink as cotton candy.” Louisiana is a great admirer of beauty and color (and food), so it’s reasonable to assume she finds the color of Burke’s house to be a comfort.

For Louisiana, the association to and experience of good food she has at the Allens’ is vitally important. This is the first time her body has been well-fed in the book, and the Allens later prove to be a source of complete nourishment for her as well—in body and spirit. The detail of food is another one that foreshadows what is to come for our heroine.

DiCamillo’s use of significant detail provides a rich setting as well as important illumination of character and foreshadowing of events. Considering how much punch each detail packs, it’s no wonder her books—which contain such vibrantly crafted settings—can be as few words as they are.

Action: Consider how the details of your setting both illuminate your characters and foreshadow coming events. What details of setting are most significant to your character? How can you infuse a sense of foreshadowing within your setting? What details will make a place seem like home to your character, or warn the reader of coming trouble, or add to your character’s sense of agency?


Character

In Louisiana’s Way Home, two-time Newbery medalist Kate DiCamillo’s use of significant and specific detail infuses her stories with vibrancy, despite her often low word-count. In my first post in this series, I discussed how her details of setting both illuminate and foreshadow. Here, I want to look at her use of detail in regard to character, and how the significant choices DiCamillo makes in describing characters exposes deeper truths about them and their relationship to Louisiana.

Berniece’s Curlers

Details are crucial to character development, and as she does with setting, DiCamillo uses significant detail in characters to foreshadow as well as illuminate. For example, upon meeting Bernice, the motel owner, we see that she is in curlers. In fact, every time Louisiana sees her, she’s in curlers, until the day Bernice takes Louisiana to the church to sing for Miss Lulu. 

This detail may seem arbitrary at a glance, but when considered more deeply, Bernice’s curlers betray her deeper character.

You may know that hair curlers in the 1970’s were not the soft, spongy things of 2019. They were made of wire and bristle or plastic and velcro. They were sharp and uncomfortable and not intended to be worn in public. Bernice’s curlers—present in almost every scene between Louisiana and Bernice—are a physical representation of the woman we come to know. She’s sharp and unyielding, expecting others to bend to her will (though her success with this is arguable, as is her success with achieving curly hair). 

Miss Lulu’s Caramel Candies

Miss Lulu, on the other hand, sucks caramel candies, has bouncy, golden curls, and plays the organ. She appears sweet, even smells sweet. But she does not share the candies, and as Louisiana listens to Miss Lulu “pounding her way through a song by Bach,” she determines that “Miss Lulu’s heart was clearly not involved with the music at all” (72). The significant details of Miss Lulu reveal her duplicity. She has the aroma of sweetness, but is, in fact, without heart.

Burke Allen: A Friend to Be Trusted

Burke Allen stands in contrast to Bernice and Miss Lulu in several key details. We meet Burke on the roof of the Good Night, Sleep Tight, along with his crow, Clarence. He’s barefoot and in relaxed clothing. His demeanor is vastly different from every other person she’s encountered. He’s relaxed, friendly, and the presence of Clarence suggests Burke is kind and trustworthy. 

Burke’s first action is to offer to get Louisiana anything she wants from the vending machine. (Basically, he’s inviting Louisiana to partake in a miracle, as that is what she called the vending machine when she first saw it.) When Burke later makes Louisiana two bologna sandwiches after she asks for one, she notes, “He was the kind of person who, if you asked him for one of something, gave you two instead.” This generosity illuminates Burke’s character, and foreshadows the generosity—even the miracle—of the entire Allen family. 

More Significant Details

I could go on at length about every character in this remarkable book. Instead, I’ll offer a brief list of several significant details that struck me. I encourage you to consider these and any others that stood out to you, as well. DiCamillo is a master at revealing character and foreshadowing events through the use of details in this book.

Other character details to consider:

  • The single spot of blood on the dentist’s, Dr. Fox’s, white coat, represents the violence that Granny has suffered behind the scenes and the violence she will inflict upon Louisiana by abandoning her.
  • The long line of Burke Allens from which Burke Allen descends helps to establish the solidity of his family and his place in the world, as well as foreshadow the lasting quality of the Allen family in Louisiana’s life.
  • Reverend Obertask napping in his book-laden office shows that he’s a man of wisdom, but might be a little slow-acting—both of which prove true.
  • In the beginning of the story, Louisiana doesn’t use a lot of contractions in her speech—almost none, actually. She does start to incorporate more after she meets Burke, who uses them regularly. This detail of speech reflects Louisiana’s inability to relax in the life she’s lived so far, yet also showcases her adaptability and her growing empathy. 

Action: Consider the ways detail reveals truth about your own characters. What are the most significant details of your characters? How do you represent their interior motivations or characteristics through one or two physical details or actions?


Check back next week when we catch up with Lindsay about her debut year!

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