The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

#52 in my book challenge for the year, and #28, the final book of my summer reading challenge, was The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Twin Cities author Kate DiCamillo. I re-read her first three novels earlier in the summer. I am pleased to have read them in order, because I see a clear progression in her work, from the bittersweet, rather slight story of a girl and her dog in Because of Winn Dixie, to the concentrated sadness tinged with darkness of The Tiger Rising, to The Tale of Despereaux, which was longer, and true to fables in its darkness and its addresses to the reader. Despereaux had several complicated characters who were neither entirely good nor bad. It went beyond sadness to show aspects of evil. The story did not end happily ever after. But it did end much more happily than it began, and with growth and increased self-knowledge for most of the characters.

Edward Tulane is DiCamillo’s saddest, darkest book yet. Like all her books, the writing is lyrical and the ending redemptive. Edward is a china rabbit and the favorite plaything of his owner. Proud and vain, he has no idea of his good circumstances until he loses them, when he goes overboard into the sea. Edward’s fortunes rise and fall, and he is found by a series of people who give him different names, and from whom he learns different lessons. The circumstances of some of his owners are terribly sad, and even worse are some of the things done to them by others. Yet what sustained me as a reader, and Edward, through the story was hope. And both Edward and I were rewarded in the end.

I admire that with each book, DiCamillo is stretching. In Edward, she created a non-sympathetic main character, who is transformed through adversity. Just as Desperaux could be read as both a story and a fable, Edward Tulane is both a story and an allegory with religious undertones. Edward’s tale is marvelously complemented by Bagram Ibatoulline’s detailed paintings and pencils; they set a tone of depressed realism different from the calculated make-believe of Desperaux. Edward Tulane is not a story for the very young, or for someone looking for a light read. It is a book that respects its readers by showing a range of human behavior and experience. Like some of the other well-written books for children I read this past summer (like I am the Cheese and We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier, Baby by Patricia MacLachlan, and Monkey Island by Paula Fox), Edward Tulane does not pretend the world is happier or less challenging than it is. But it reminds readers that happiness and meaning often are learned, not given.

Interestingly, DiCamillo has also recently written chapter books about a pig named Mercy Watson. Mercy Watson to the Rescue and Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride are easy readers that are funny, and decidedly silly. My three-year-old son Drake loves them, and we’ve read them many times. I wonder if perhaps the humor of the Mercy Watson books helped DiCamillo to counter some of the darkness required in the writing of Edward Tulane. So if a tale of suffering redeemed doesn’t sound quite right at the moment (or ever), check out the Mercy Watson books for an entirely different reading experience.

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