craft review by Lindsay Lackey
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.
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?
Lindsay Lackey has trained as an opera singer, worked in children’s and teen services at the public library, and for a major publishing house in publicity and marketing. Now, she writes magical novels for middle grade readers. Born and raised in Colorado, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their spoiled dog.
Lindsay’s debut middle grade novel, ALL THE IMPOSSIBLE THINGS, is coming Fall 2019 from Macmillan’s Roaring Brook Press.