This week, my students have been discussing Flora and Ulysses, by bestselling American children’s writer, Kate DiCamillo. It’s the tale of a lonely girl named Flora, who looks out of her bedroom window one day to see a squirrel being sucked into a rogue vacuum cleaner, along with a book of poetry and some crackers.
Racing to the rescue, Flora gives the squirrel CPR and mouth-to-mouth, and brings him back to life. As they look into one another’s eyes, it is a case of instant love and recognition, and she names the squirrel Ulysses, after the vacuum cleaner (its brand is the Ulysses2000).
What has happened inside that vacuum cleaner? We don’t know for sure, but Ulysses awakes from his experience transformed into a poet. When Flora takes him home, he sneaks downstairs at night, lured by the smell of cheese crackers in the kitchen, and spends a little time at her mother’s typewriter composing poetry.
And so it goes. Flora’s mother, a romance writer, does not take kindly to her grumpy daughter’s new pet, and begins a plot to remove Ulysses from the scene (a sack and a shovel feature). Flora’s father, a sad accountant, introduces Flora to his neighbour, Dr Meescham, a philosopher from another country who advises Flora to believe in the squirrel, and to believe in whatever the world throws at her. Flora’s neighbour (the owner of the vacuum cleaner) shows up with another book of poetry, and her scientific nephew, William, who complicates the plot by befriending Flora’s mother and advising her on her latest romance novel. Ulysses saves Flora’s father’s bald head from the claws of his landlord’s cat, a wicked creature named Mr Klaus. In the local diner, Ulysses is nearly killed by a knife-wielding chef, who does not take kindly to hungry squirrels looking for donuts, and Flora saves him by sticking out her foot and tripping said chef. Ulysses writes poetry. Flora, who hasn’t been sure, learns that her parents love her. The novel closes with Flora, lonely no longer, sitting on the horsehair couch of Dr Meescham, surrounded by her friends and family, and Ulysses, who provides an epilogue which sums up the novel’s deeper meanings.
Flare up like flame–reading Rilke to Ulysses
It’s a very strange book: sometimes so wacky that you think it’s overreaching; sometimes very touching, sometimes (often) very funny, sometimes (often) thoughtful and profound. And it’s highly literate and highly literary. The novel abounds with different kinds of writing and thinking. Flora and her father enjoy reading comic books–The Great Incandesto, Terrible things can happen, The Criminal Mind are Flora’s go-to books when she encounters challenges. Flora’s mother writes romances. Ulysses writes poetry. Tootie Tickham reads Yeats and Rilke and James Joyce. William and Dr Meescham think about science and philosophy. Dr Meescham quotes Pascal. Tootie Tickham quotes Rilke:
In reading Rilke to Ulysses, Tootie gives the squirrel a model for his poetry, at least that’s what I think is going on. It’s a lovely moment, sending Ulysses on a quest, a poetic journey to chase the truth. His poems are interspersed through the novel, often summing up preceding plot points, and providing much-needed moments of rest in a novel that is full of antics. We should all be so lucky to read the poetry of our animal companions.
Ulysses’ odyssey offers a nice counterpoint to Flora’s journey of discovery. Hers is a journey from isolation to integration, from reading comics alone in her room to being surrounded by friend on Dr Meescham’s magical couch, reassured that both her parents love her, despite their divorce (the novel delicately doesn’t promise that they will reunite, but shows them united in their love for their daughter). Flora begins the novel a self-professed ‘cynic,’ guarding her heart from disappointment. Her motto is ‘Do not hope. Instead, observe,’ and is taken from the advice comic she likes to read, TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU.
It’s hard to imagine a children’s book that could leave Flora in this state–of cynical despair. Optimism is children’s literature’s stock in trade. Flora’s mother, who seems hard-bitten and bossy to her daughter, confesses her worries, to Ulysses (before forcing him to write a fake farewell note to Flora):
Of course, Flora’s mother misses the point. The world may not be kind to the strange, but where would good stories be without them? And Ulysses proves himself to be a better, truer, kinder writer than she is, and a good friend. To paraphrase E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (which is the next novel we discuss in my class), ‘It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Ulysses was both.’ Ulysses sees Flora as she truly is, and not in terms of externals or social judgements.
This all might seem rather minute, a small domestic drama, and the novel is set in an ordinary American suburb (home, apartment, neighbourhood diner). But in its very smallness, Flora and Ulysses dreams big dreams, which Ulysses sums up in his poems. Almost all of them are about roundness, and about the world. When Ulysses awakes in Flora’s arms following his incident with the vacuum cleaner, he looks into her eyes, and sees a whole world there, and his poetry throughout the novel is about the roundness and completeness of the world.
So, whether we see the novel as a mock epic (and Flora continually imposes this idea on Ulysses’ actions, viewing them as snippets from the superhero comics she loves), or a suburban odyssey, what is definitely going on is that DiCamillo takes seriously the needs of child protagonists and child readers, finding in the smallest of them, big ideas, hopes, and dreams.