Marina Warner’s scholarship has long demonstrated how fairy tales can transmit female secrets. An older woman communicates something to a girl that can be said only in the code of stories. Think of a tale like “Beauty and the Beast” being told to a child who may one day find herself married off to a brute. Or consider the harsh destinies of the unkind stepsisters in “Cinderella”: in some versions they cut off their own toes or heels, and pigeons peck out their eyes. A story of female revenge is perhaps most wisely told in the privacy of the nursery.
In From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (1994), Warner tracks the term “old wives’ tale” back as far as Plato’s Gorgias, where it was used to disparage stories told for the purpose of amusing, frightening, or consoling children. “It is still, in English, an ambiguous phrase,” she writes. “An old wives’ tale means a piece of nonsense, a tissue of error, an ancient act of deception, of self and others, idle talk.” And yet, she argues, “although male writers and collectors have dominated the production and dissemination of popular wonder tales, they often pass on women’s stories from intimate or domestic milieux.”
Charles Perrault, whose Tales of Mother Goose (1697), Warner writes, “inaugurated the fairy tale as a literary form for children,” gathered his material from his grandmother and servants. Hans Christian Andersen said his stories were based on those told to him as a child by the old women in his village. For the Grimm brothers, too, their “most inspiring and prolific sources were women”—including an old woman in an almshouse who was famous for her stories but would not speak with the brothers. They hired a little girl as a secret intermediary; she asked the woman to tell her tales, and then retold them to the Grimms.
The enduring power of fairy tales lies in the way they can be retold and retailored, their elements forming what Warner calls “an Esperanto of the imagination.”1 Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio presents a remarkable example. Collodi was a Florentine political journalist and satirist who, in 1875, was invited to translate Perrault’s French fairy tales into Italian. Those stories, though complex and contradictory, are distinguished by the assured morals that end them. “Little Red Riding Hood” concludes with this message: “Children, especially well-bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers.” At the end of “Puss in Boots,” the reader is told, “There is great advantage in receiving a large inheritance, but diligence and ingenuity are worth more.”
When Collodi began to write chapters of Pinocchio for a children’s weekly in 1881, he imported Perrault’s fairy-tale morals but changed their placement and function. They are no longer endings; instead they are bits along the way. Remember the conscientious cricket who urges the wooden puppet to study and not run away from home? In Collodi’s text (though not in the Disney film) Pinocchio crushes him early on with a mallet. The dead cricket later returns as a ghost and pleads with Pinocchio not to be deceived by the Fox and the Cat, a pair of archetypal con artists who have convinced him that if he buries his gold coins in the Field of Miracles, they will multiply five hundred times over. “My boy,” the cricket says, “never trust people who promise to make you rich in a day. They are generally crazy swindlers.” Sure enough, when Pinocchio goes by moonlight to bury the coins, the Fox and the Cat attack him, hang him from a tree, and leave him for dead.
The story originally stopped there—a moralistic ending, arguably, or even a covert condemnation of charming tales: the Fox and the Cat were better storytellers than the good Geppetto and the cricket; their tall tales won. But readers complained, so Collodi wrote more chapters, reviving Pinocchio with the magic of the Blue Fairy. The wooden puppet may be a liar, but his lies are not like those of the Fox and the Cat, who use their charm to take what little belongs to others weaker than they are. Pinocchio’s lies are those told by an innocent—defensive, exuberant, or wishful in nature, they help him to clumsily navigate peril and power.
Kate DiCamillo has written more than twenty-five books for children. Some of them—including her newest, The Beatryce Prophecy,2 about a young girl in the Middle Ages whose mind is crowded with mesmerizing stories—are written in a fairy-tale mode. But before The Beatryce Prophecy she wrote a trilogy of lyrical, goofy, very moving novels set in the South during the 1970s: Raymie Nightingale (2016), Louisiana’s Way Home (2018), and Beverly, Right Here (2019). Though realistic, they are still laced with fairy-tale elements. Each focuses on a different young girl who assembles her own story out of the scraps of tales she gathers from her surroundings, making something new out of them. The trilogy is marketed toward middle-grade readers, but its bright, buoyant sadness reminds me of Joy Williams; its dark optimism and playful language recall Stevie Smith.
Raymie Clarke, Louisiana Elefante, and Beverly Tapinski are ten years old in the first book, twelve in the second, and fourteen in the third. At the start of Raymie Nightingale, Raymie’s father, who owns a small insurance business in the fictional Florida town of Lister, has just run off with a dental hygienist. Raymie gets the idea that if she can win a local contest called Little Miss Central Florida Tire, her father will see her photograph in the newspaper and return home. This is the quest that fate seems to have assigned Raymie—and the one she ultimately has to reimagine in order to survive. But first she needs a talent for the pageant. She signs up for baton-twirling lessons, and that’s where she meets Louisiana and Beverly.
DiCamillo grew up in Florida, having moved there in 1969 at the age of five with her mother and older brother. Her father was expected to join them there but never did. In interviews, she has said that she did not set out to write an autobiographical novel, or a trilogy; her initial idea simply involved a young girl who wants to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest. But then she wondered: What was this girl’s motivation? She found herself writing that it was to regain the attention of a father who had left. DiCamillo is, in a sense, the archetypal older female storyteller, recounting a tale to her younger self about how one might handle or survive such an abandonment.
Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly are all white girls from households of modest to no means. None of them, it turns out, has a father at home. As in a fairy tale, they have a series of tasks to perform, obstacles to overcome. They must rescue Louisiana’s cat, Archie, whom her grandmother claims to have taken to a place she calls the Very Friendly Animal Center because they can’t afford to feed him. They also must steal a baton from their instructor Ida Nee’s house, as it rightly belongs to Beverly’s mother, herself a former champion baton twirler and beauty queen. And they must retrieve a library book about Florence Nightingale that Raymie has lost under the bed of a nursing home patient. They can’t reclaim their missing parents, but their shared pursuit of these substitute objects bonds the girls into a new kind of family.
This alternative family begins to form at the baton-twirling class. When Raymie hears Louisiana apologizing to her absent cat—“Archie, I’m sorry! I’m sorry I betrayed you!”—she quietly repeats the apology to herself: “‘I’m sorry,’ Raymie whispered. ‘I betrayed you.’ For some reason, the words seemed worth repeating.” Raymie collects phrases like these, often shuffling their elements as though they are parts of a rebus. Within her experience of abandonment, she has an unusually strong version of a power specific to childhood: that of making something valuable out of not much at all. For a moment, Louisiana’s repurposed words help Raymie imagine how her father could have left, and what he might have said in a good-bye.
Raymie has an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Borkowski, who sometimes sits in a lawn chair in the middle of the street. Raymie’s mother says that Mrs. Borkowski is “crazy as a loon,” but Raymie likes her company. She brings the Little Miss Central Florida Tire application over to Mrs. Borkowski for help filling it out, at which point the old lady launches into what sounds like an old wives’ tale. Once, she saw a giant seabird snatch a baby from a mother’s arms:
“But the mother got the baby back, right?”
“From a gigantic seabird? Never,” said Mrs. Borkowski. “Those gigantic seabirds, they keep what they take. Also, they steal buttons. And hairpins.”
This story could easily be dismissed as a fiction, or even a delusion. But Raymie listens carefully and accepts the wisdom in it. It offers her a slantwise consolation: a family member is stolen, rather than having left. It also offers a slantwise truth: the separation is final. And it gives her the consolation of storytelling itself, a bright whistling she and her friends will use repeatedly against whatever is out there in the dark.
One of Raymie’s strongest memories of her father is an ambivalent one: it involves a story about a girl named Clara Wingtip who drowned in the town’s lake long ago. An aerial photograph of the lake hangs above her father’s desk at the insurance company, where she saw it for the first time at the age of six:
He had put her on his shoulders so that she was close to the photograph, and Raymie had traced the shadow of Clara with her fingertip. For a long time after that, she had been afraid to go into his office, afraid that Clara was waiting for her and that her ghost would pull Raymie into the lake, pull her under the water and drown her somehow.
Raymie is still haunted by her father’s tale. In his absence she thinks of the practical lessons she learned from her old lifesaving coach, Mr. Staphopoulos—who, unlike her father, said good-bye when he moved away from Lister:
Every day in Lifesaving 101, Mr. Staphopoulos had all the students stand on the dock and flex their toes and isolate their objectives. Mr. Staphopoulos believed that flexing your toes cleared your mind and that once your mind was clear, it was easy to isolate your objectives and figure out what to do next. For instance: save whoever was drowning.
These ideas—about flexing her toes and isolating her objectives—become phrases that Raymie repeats to herself throughout the book. They guide her and buy her the time she needs to allow other actions to become imaginable, then possible. And so when Louisiana nearly drowns in the lake after the girls rescue a one-eyed dog named Buddy from the pound during their hunt for Archie, Raymie tacitly rewrites the ghost story her father told her: she saves the life of her friend, and she herself doesn’t drown.
DiCamillo has said that after completing Raymie Nightingale she kept hearing the voice of Louisiana Elefante and “was really surprised by how much Louisiana wanted to tell her story.” The first and third books of the trilogy are narrated in close third person, but in Louisiana’s Way Home, the title character, now twelve years old, directly addresses the page. “In some ways, this is a story of woe and confusion,” she says, “but it is also a story of joy and kindness and free peanuts.”
Louisiana has been raised in precarious circumstances by her grandmother, a crafty old woman in bunny barrettes whose practical advice is to steal cans of tuna fish for their high protein content. Granny has always said that Louisiana’s parents were “famous trapeze artists known as the Flying Elefantes,” who drowned in a shipwreck. She has also impressed upon Louisiana the necessity of outwitting an unseen figure named Marsha Jean.
In Raymie Nightingale Louisiana tells her friends that Marsha Jean “wants to capture me and put me in the county home, where they only ever serve you bologna to eat.” For the reader, Marsha Jean appears to represent the risk of Louisiana being taken from Granny by child welfare services, or of Granny being put into a mental institution. She also reads as a stand-in for the more workaday menaces that pursue them: electric companies wanting their bills paid, law enforcement objecting to Granny’s and Louisiana’s petty thefts from convenience stores.
Beverly is sure that Marsha Jean doesn’t exist, and she is baffled that Louisiana seems to swallow Granny’s stories hook, line, and sinker. Raymie is less certain. When they visit Louisiana and Granny at the empty house where they appear to be squatting, Raymie asks Granny if Marsha Jean is real. Out of Louisiana’s earshot, Granny responds that she is “the ghost of what’s to come”: “It’s good to be on the lookout for those who might do you harm. I need Louisiana to be cautious. And wily. I won’t always be here to protect her.”
For all her slyness, Granny is essentially sympathetic in Raymie Nightingale—a pragmatic eccentric and kindly deceiver. This is complicated in Louisiana’s Way Home when she wakes Louisiana at 3 AM and says, “The day of reckoning has arrived. The hour is close at hand. We must leave immediately.” This time they are fleeing not from Marsha Jean but from a “curse of sundering”—the result of Louisiana’s great-grandfather, a magician, having cut her great-grandmother in half and never put her back together. It’s another story that Louisiana has grown up with. Now, Granny says, “the curse at last must be confronted.”
Walter Benjamin famously observed that the wisest thing children can learn from fairy tales is to meet the world not with obedience but “with cunning and with high spirits.” A character such as Puss in Boots tells lies because he and his master have to make their way through an unjust world; the “is” of the world is not the “ought” of the world, and that is why the deceptions are required. So we might say that Louisiana is the most cunning and high-spirited of the three girls—she has no choice.
The morning of their departure from Lister, Louisiana is devastated, angry, and tired. She has been through this sort of thing too many times before. She stops speaking to Granny on the drive north, but when they cross the Florida–Georgia state line, Granny pulls over. “Oh, my tooth, my tooth. Oh, it is the curse of my father,” she says. Her pain is so severe she can no longer drive. Louisiana writes:
I sat there for a minute and thought about my options, and there weren’t many of them.
And that is how it came to pass that I—Louisiana Elefante—slid behind the wheel of the car and cranked the engine and put the blinker on and pulled out onto the highway and went in search of a dentist.
Louisiana has long been attached to Granny’s stories, including the one about the Flying Elefantes. In Louisiana’s Way Home, she starts to let these stories go, isolating what few facts remain. Of her parents she writes:
They are dead, and I do not remember them at all. I have only ever known Granny. She has been my mother and my father. She has taught me everything I know.
Louisiana’s tale, as she tells it, is a deliberate reimagining of Pinocchio, with Pinocchio here being a young girl raised by a charismatic confabulator whose stories make more sense as tangled codes than direct truths. Through writing, Louisiana tries to understand why Granny has driven her away from Lister, working out the balance of anger and love she feels toward Granny, whose delusions have had such control over Louisiana’s own well-being and needs.
“Finding a dentist is not as easy as you might imagine,” Louisiana says. “Nothing is.” But Granny has taught her how to gather information from strangers—including by smiling with “all of my teeth”—and she manages to find one named Dr. Fox. Unlike the Fox in Pinocchio, the dentist turns out to be a nice man. He does, however, extract Granny’s rotted teeth in an emergency procedure. Louisiana evades the unpayable bill by making up a nonexistent grandfather named William Sunder who lives on Blue Fairy Lane.
Granny, now toothless, has lost one of her greatest resources: her ability to smooth-talk her way through transactions with those who can provide what she and Louisiana need. When she sends Louisiana into a motel called the Good Night, Sleep Tight later that day to try to get a room without paying, she instructs her, “Use your charm.” Louisiana has charm, but she also has wonder, which is often a source of her charm. She notices a vending machine in the vestibule:
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.
The vending machine was such a miracle that as I stood and contemplated it, I almost wondered if I was dreaming.
Her awe at the vending machine speaks to her poverty, but also to her sensitivity to unremarked-upon splendor—a gift at least in part attributable to Granny. When others are in the presence of Louisiana and Granny, they sometimes see the world in that way, too. One of Raymie’s happiest moments in the first book is the girls’ visit to Granny and Louisiana’s house, where they eat tuna fish together directly out of the can and drink water out of paper cups that were discarded. Louisiana explains:
They’re supposed to have the answer to the riddle on the bottom, but they made a mistake and forgot to put the answer there…and that’s why we got thousands of the cups for free. Because they don’t have the answer. Isn’t that something?
In Raymie Nightingale, the reader experiences Louisiana’s near drowning from Raymie’s perspective. In Louisiana’s Way Home, we get Louisiana’s version, which replaces the ghost of Clara Wingtip with the comforting figure of the Blue Fairy:
The Blue Fairy is very beautiful. I don’t know if you know this or not. She is very beautiful and very kind. And when I was underwater and almost drowning, the Blue Fairy opened her arms to me and smiled. Her blue hair was floating above her head, and there was a light all around her.
And then Raymie came and saved me from drowning and the Blue Fairy floated away. She went in the opposite direction, deeper into the pond. She looked extremely disappointed as she left.
I have never told anybody that before—about the Blue Fairy appearing to me and how sad she seemed that I was not going with her. But I am writing it down now.
There is a great deal of power in writing things down.
Louisiana clearly knows her Pinocchio. The Blue Fairy that she sees, and disappoints, is, in the original Collodi text, herself a ghostly child when Pinocchio first meets her:
Seeing that it was useless to knock, he began kicking the door, and beating it with his head. At that, a lovely child opened the window. Her hair was blue, and her face as white as wax; her eyes were closed, and her hands were crossed on her breast.
Without moving her lips she said in a very low voice that seemed to come from another world, “There is nobody in this house. They are all dead.”
Eventually Louisiana learns her true origin story, which, like Pinocchio’s, is not straightforward. Granny is not her biological grandmother, and her parents were not famous trapeze artists who tragically drowned. In a letter, Granny finally offers an explanation that seems closer to the truth: she found Louisiana as an abandoned infant, wrapped in a floral blanket, alone on a pile of cardboard behind the Louisiana Five-and-Dime in New Orleans, where she was working at the time. “You smiled at me,” she writes. “I named you for where you were found, and caring for you has been the greatest joy of my life.”
Granny writes this letter to Louisiana before driving off from the motel to die alone. Although her leaving echoes Louisiana’s original abandonment, Granny has equipped Louisiana with a set of survival skills, and does everything in her power to convey her love: “I have loved you with the whole of myself, Louisiana. You will always and forever be loved by me.” In so doing, she sets Louisiana free.
The third novel, Beverly, Right Here, poses a distinct problem: its central character is now fourteen, an age neither enchanted nor fully mature. What use are fairy tales to someone who is convinced she has outgrown them? Beverly’s mother is often drunk and angry; Beverly herself is guarded and alert, quick to spot the lies of grown-ups. She also has a gift for telling truths that others would leave unsaid, as when she says to Raymie, in the first book, what no one else will acknowledge: “People leave and they don’t come back. Somebody has to tell you the truth.”
Beverly, Right Here begins with the death of the dog Buddy, whom Beverly adopted after the three girls rescued him from the pound. After burying him in her backyard in Lister, she thinks to herself, “Buddy is dead—my dog is dead…. No one can make me stay.” She hitches a ride with her nineteen-year-old cousin, Joe Travis, to a town called Tamaray Beach, an hour or so down the highway. During the drive Joe Travis offers her a cigarette, which she declines. When she won’t tell him what she’s planning, he accuses her of being secretive and just like her mother: “You always did think that you was better than everybody else on God’s green earth…. I don’t care how many beauty contests your mom won back in the day.” The truth is, Beverly has no particular plan. But she isn’t like her mother, nor is she taken in by clichéd stories of sophistication.
Beverly applies for a job busing tables at the first business she sees—a fish restaurant—telling the manager that she’s sixteen. He knows she’s lying, but he agrees to take her on; the fact that he has three daughters of his own, who live with their mother in Pennsylvania, seems to be part of the reason. “It’s a tragedy, having kids,” he tells her. “Don’t let anybody tell you any different.” The waitress is an older girl named Freddie, who tells Beverly that she needs to dream bigger: “I’m going to be somebody…. You could be somebody, too. You’ve got good, long legs…. And your hair is nice. Let me see your teeth.” Beverly bares her teeth at Freddie, keeping her at bay in much the same way she did with her cousin.
Though Beverly rejects the openness to wonder that worked for Raymie and Louisiana, she’s guided by snippets of lyricism. Away from home, she thinks, “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds”—a bit of poetry from school that stays with her. At another point she notices some text scratched into the glass of a phone booth: “In a crooked little house by a crooked little sea.” These nursery rhyme–like words guide and comfort her more than the phone call she makes to her mother, whose response to hearing that Beverly is okay is “Whoop-de-do.”
Beverly ends up rooming in a trailer park with an old woman named Iola, whose cat, Nod, takes an immediate shine to her. She also becomes friends with a gentle and bullied sixteen-year-old named Elmer who works at the local convenience store, Zoom City. He hands out dimes to children of little means who want to ride the mechanical horse out front. Behind the counter, he reads about art history. When Beverly first sees him there, he’s reading a book that has an image of wings on the cover: “The wings were a bright, impossible, glorious blue.”
Beverly is not interested in ghosts or fairies. But there is something about this Italian Renaissance painting that speaks to her:
Beverly studied the blue wings on the cover of the book. They belonged to an angel who was hovering over a woman with her hands on her cheeks. The woman didn’t look all that happy.
But then, neither did the angel.
When Elmer asks Beverly what she’s looking for as she roams the aisles of the store, the angel’s wings come to mind: “That was what she was looking for—that brilliant, impossible blue.”
The next day Beverly returns to Zoom City and asks Elmer questions about the painting—in particular about how that blue is made. “It’s a gem,” he tells her as she walks him to his bus stop after work. “It’s lapis lazuli. They ground it up and turned it into paint.” For Beverly, saying the words “lapis lazuli” is “like muttering a spell, an incantation”: “‘Lapis lazuli!’ she shouted after the bus. ‘Lapis lazuli!’ They were such beautiful words. She couldn’t help it. She loved them.”
The Florida-born writer Karen Russell once said to me of an irrational but desirable plan—like the plan of writing stories, say—that it’s like planting mints and lug nuts and old pennies in a field and then expecting a garden to grow. Yet unlikely objects sown in the imagination do occasionally bloom. DiCamillo’s prose often works by revealing affinities between the grand and the insignificant. For Beverly, the discovery of the color of the angel’s wings—and the words to name it—unlocks something. She begins to pay attention not only to what she doesn’t want but also to what she does want. Back at the fish restaurant, she surveys her surroundings:
Outside the open door, past the seagull and the dumpsters and the hotels, there was a small strip of ocean visible. It was a bright, sparkling blue.
Not as bright as lapis lazuli.
But bright enough.