DiCamillo (2001 Honor Book) Because of Winn Dixie is all about making connections. It’s about finding friends in a new place but there is a lot more to it than that. It is about reconnecting to the family that you have and letting go of some ghosts and burdens you have been carrying. It’s about finding allies where you don’t expect them and about how even the people who are being jerks to you may very well have more to them than you expect. It’s about letting go of a mother who is a mystery and about finding the man who has been hiding inside your father for years.
It’s also about a dog and Winn Dixie is my favorite of the dutiful dogs of Newbery fame. He’s loopy and sloppy and silly and just generally great. He’s a friendly nonjudgmental meeting point for everyone in the book, a source of boundless and non judgmental love with a heart so big that it has room for everyone in the story. People make their connections to one another based off of their connection with him and he creates a common space of love. He is a most disarmingly charming dog.
There is some great magical realism going through this book and it is achieved in a way that is utterly enchanting. It’s subtle but this is more than just a town in the South…it is EVERY town in the South. There is a deliberate timelessness about the story too. There are no cell phones and technology isn’t really talked about. This story could be happening at any point in about a fifty year span, it could have been the 60s, it could have been last week (and nobody is using their cell phones). The Littmus Lozenge, a candy that tastes like melancholy is another part of this. In another book that little candy would be the entire conceit of the narrative (and it would be much more limited as a result). DiCamillo is weaving a much subtler tapestry than that though. This stuff adds to the mis-en-scène of the book but it never overpowers it. This is ultimately Opal’s story, hers and Winn Dixie’s.
I reread this one right before I read The Great Gilly Hopkins and I thought it was pretty interesting to completely randomly chose two Newberys where the mother ran off. There are LOTS of dead mothers in Newbery books and dead parents about in children’s lit across the board. It’s an odd conceit, that you have to have to have a dead or absent parent to give a story depth. It makes for a strong conflict and we all like to read about stuff that scares us. If you ever do any book talking to the YA crowd you know that sometimes the sadder the story the better it is going to move off your shelves (ie those horrid horrid books by Ellen Hopkins). I get it but there are times when I really want to just read a kids book that has happy well adjusted parents. It seems like it would be so refreshing.