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Sunday, August 07, 2016

Flora & Ulysses

Flora & Ulysses
by Kate DiCamillo
illustrations by Keith Gordon Campbell

Ten year old self-proclaimed natural-born cynic, Flora Belle Buckman, is lonely and in a rut with no relief, being quite fed up with the status quo. In the middle of accepting her parents' divorce, it is not at all surprising that precocious Flora lives by the mantra, "Do not hope; instead observe."

And, it is no wonder she turns to her trusted "Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!" and its companion "Terrible Things Can Happen To You!" for advice and lessons on life, even though her mother, Phyllis, categorically rejects these as "the idiotic high jinks of comics."

It all starts when Flora's neighbor Tootie Tickham gets a Ulys­ses Super-Suction Multi-Terrain 2000X vacuum cleaner for her birthday. The said vacuum cleaner on its maiden venture sucks up an unsuspecting squirrel and spits it out sans some fur, seemingly unharmed. However, Flora (and Tootie) know otherwise. As does the unsuspecting squirrel.

"Holy bagumba!" says Flora when the squirrel lifts up the vacuum cleaner effortlessly to get it out of the way. There is no doubt the squirrel has superpowers, he can even fly, even if he is a bit dazed from the experience. "His brain felt larger, roomier. It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self (doors he hadn’t even known existed) had suddenly been flung wide. Everything was shot through with meaning, purpose, light."

Flora names him Ulysses and takes him home for tending and nursing, and that's when yet another superpower is revealed: the power of words, as typed by the squirrel on her mother's typewriter. Yes, a flying squirrel who can think human thoughts and write human words and who has immense physical strength for a rodent of his stature. Is he a superhero or not?

Flora and Ulysses have quite a wild adventure together, not straying far from home, of course. Add to this mix the enigmatic and cerebral William Spiver, Tootie Tickham's nephew, who is temporarily blind and has been banished from his mother's home, we have a comical and entertaining story that unfolds in the most unpredictable manner.

The conflict occurs when Flora's mom decides to do away with Ulysses and squirrelnaps him in the middle of the night. Flora is no shrinking violet, and she decides to get Ulysses back even if she has to ransom her mom's favorite lamp. Yes, lamp. Which in itself is another superbly crafted character.

Books for kids that offer so much for adults as Kate DiCamillo's books do are hard to come by. While this book is not profound and heavy, it is packed with depth and meaning that kids can peel away depending on their level of maturity and experience in life. I went back and re-read many of the sentences admiring what a master Ms. DiCamillo is at her craft. The words are lyrical, magnificent, and perfect in many places, plus quite funny.

And the illustrations meld seamlessly with the text to enhance the storytelling. Very rarely do novels with illustrated panels in them manage to blend in unobtrusively and add to the reading experience; the most ridiculous moments that may not easily be captured in words get a free-pass, with pictures indeed being worth a thousand words.

Flora's dad is very much in the picture, of course, and Flora is very much attached to her dad. But, his weekend visits are just not enough. Flora is at odds with her mother throughout the book, going so far as to naming her mom as the arch-nemesis for her superhero Ulysses.

The adventure culminates in a satisfactory ending, where Ulysses is unharmed and is actually cherished for his heroism.

Read an excerpt here

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