Kate DiCamillo, The Tiger Rising (Candlewick Press, 2001)
As a reader, you may not be able to relate to the specific details of Kate DiCamillo's The Tiger Rising. You may not know what it is like to lose a parent at a young age. You may not be familiar with life in the American south or, more specifically, life in a small Florida motel. And you probably haven't had the experience of discovering a live caged tiger behind this unlikeliest of places. Yet there is a resounding familiarity to this gem of a short novel, a story unmistakably about the experience and magic of childhood.
The Tiger Rising is Rob Horton's story and takes place over several days during which he finds the tiger, meets the strong-willed Sistine Bailey and comes to terms with the pain he has kept locked away since his mother's death. As it turns out, the three events have an important relationship to one another, at least in that the latter could not have happened without the coincidental convergence of the first two. And although the story is set in the real world, there is a lingering sense of the fantastical lurking just beyond the edges of the page.
One of DiCamillo's greatest strengths as a writer is her economy of prose. She does not fill any line, paragraph or page with unnecessary words, yet every scene and description is as perfect and vivid as the reality it refers to. Her ability to see the world through a child's eyes, with so much wonder and curiosity, and then translate that to the written word is also admirable.
Each small detail DiCamillo mentions to give her characters life, her settings colour and vitality is important not only at the moment the detail is introduced, but turns out to be an integral aspect of the story as a whole. Often, these tiny pieces of information like the early mention of Rob's rash come up again and again, each time with a new meaning and significance. It is the subtlety with which DiCamillo sprinkles these details throughout the work that makes them all the more poignant.
When Rob meets Sistine on his school bus one morning and first learns her name, he is reminded of a picture of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in a book he was allowed to keep from the library one of his favourites. "In the book, the picture from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel showed God reaching out and touching Adam. It was like they were playing a game of tag, like God was making Adam 'it.' It was a beautiful picture." It is a unique and strangely accurate description of Michelangelo's painting made all the more poetic described in the innocent thoughts of a young boy. Such passages make the book a delight to read.
The book falters slightly, and then only momentarily, when it begins to seem that the outcome will provide nothing more than the moral that wild animals should not be caged a disappointing resolution to such a strong book. DiCamillo again flexes her writing muscles; however, to put a unique twist on the idea and disappointment is just about the furthest thing from what you will actually feel.
Given the book's subject matter, it would be all too easy to identify The Tiger Rising as simply a children's book. While it definitely is geared towards a young audience, the work is certain to find fans of all ages hopefully for many years and generations to come.