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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Heavy Medal Finalist: LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME by Kate DiCamillo

lousianaThe Newbery Terms and Criteria identify “appropriateness of style” as one of the key elements of “distinguished” text, and that’s the area where LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME truly shines. It’s hard to imagine this story being told in any other way than through the words and unique viewpoint of Louisiana herself. The characters wouldn’t come to life in the same way, the setting would be ordinary, and the plot might not be compelling. Early on we’re introduced to the odd mix of melodrama and abrupt directness in Louisiana’s narration:

Granny has never listened to other people’s instructions. She has ever heeded anyone’s commands. She is the type of person who tells other people what to do, not vice versa.

But in the end, it didn’t matter that Granny refused to stop the car, because fate intervened.

And by that I mean to say that we ran out of gas.

As Louisiana notes, she wants us to “understand the desperation – the utter devastation – in my heart,” but she’s also “writing it down for somewhat more practical matters.” The distinctive style injects a great deal of humor into the book, but the funny parts are always connected to Louisiana’s struggle to find hope and kindness in a world that is not always happy at all:

In some ways, this is a story of woe and confusion, but it is also a story of joy and kindness and free peanuts.

“Thank you,” I said.

I helped myself to fourteen bags.

Vic smiled at me the whole time I was taking peanuts from the rack.

There is goodness in many hearts.

In most hearts.

In some hearts.

I love peanuts.

 

The style is also attached to a very specific person. We learn a lot about Louisiana through her sometimes rambling consciousness. She’s curious and observant, and appreciates small things that others might miss.

I closed the palm-tree curtains. There is something sad about palm trees cavorting all over curtains when you are not in Florida but are instead in Georgia. Why weren’t the curtains printed with peaches? That is what I wanted to know.

Curtains should be state-appropriate.

Lots of things, in fact, should be different from how they are.

The passage is amusing, and it’s likely the first and only time that the notion of the state appropriateness of curtains has been discussed in a work of literature. But that last sentence reminds us that this is, at least partly, a story of “woe and confusion”

That interplay between flowery exaggeration and practical reality continues throughout the book and keeps us guessing. It takes us from Louisiana’s big ideas and optimism to real life problems that she has to face. Later, she realizes that a central truth to her life, the identity of parents, is actually another fantasy. By then, though, we know how her mind works and we can see how the exuberant side of her outlook will provide the resilience she needs to absorb this discovery, even though it’s so much more serious than peanut bags and curtain decorations.

The distinct style of Louisiana’s narrative also provides a powerful surprise at the ending. Not the plot development that she’ll stay in Georgia…we kind of see that coming. The surprise is the fact that she’s been writing all of this to Granny.

And so here I am, Granny, almost at the end of the story.

Imagine how surprised I am to find that you are the one I am writing it for.

With that knowledge, we look back at the neediness and struggle that was couched within her telling, and realize she’s been telling important things to Granny all along: that her life has been hard since she left; that she’s struggled, but is doing okay (“provisions have been made”); that a big part of who she is has come from Granny; and that she forgives her. It’s only in the last pages of the book that I realized that the central theme is about forgiveness…but as soon as I realized that, I thought: Of course it is. That’s what this whole story has been about all along. And what a brilliant and original way to convey that theme.

Introduction by Steven

Please share your own thoughts about LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME in the comments below. We’ll discuss only the strengths of the novel first, then the discussion opens to questions and possible weaknesses, along with positive aspects, at 12:00 noon (EST)

 

 

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. We held our Faculty Mock Newbery last Saturday and Louisiana won the hearts of our teachers and received an Honor. The teacher who introduced the book at our meeting used “folk tale” to describe the tone of the narrative that helped focusing our discussion.

  2. There are certainly gobs of worthy contenders this year (and if I’m already angsting over how *our* little mock committee is panning out, I can only imagine what the Real Committee is going through), and Louisiana returns to me again and again as I think about the titles we’re considering.

    Like several other strongly drawn characters (Charlie, Nan, Xiomara, Annie, Mia) in our finalists pile, Louisiana’s voice remains one of the strongest. She’s childlike, but wise beyond her years – a reflection, perhaps, of the trauma she has suffered. How many children have we taught who are similar: wowing us one moment with insight and causing us to facepalm moments later (I believe it’s fellow Committee Member Alys who said something similar earlier in our discussions – thank you for letting me much that observation up, Alys). Louisiana’s precocious but hardened – but not so hardened that she doesn’t look for the joy in things or tap into a vast emotional reservoir to find peace, like when she sings in the church.

    I responded to Roxanne’s comment with a link to a brief review I wrote on Goodreads over the summer, but I’ll briefly summarize a key point. Commonly voices concerns with this book are that Louisiana isn’t believable, that what happens is too quirky, that she has no safety net. All these are true, but all of them are also present in stories from the oral tradition: children forced to do unspeakable things and face relentless evil and make unthinkable decisions. We don’t question when children from fairy tales kiss frogs or descend into hell or eat candy off of houses (and are summarily thrown in an oven).

    And this is what I think is so masterful about LOUISIANA: DiCamillo plays with all these familiar storytelling tropes but masks them in “reality” that’s dotted with magical happenings and coincidences. The reader must suspend their disbelief, perhaps more so than when reading something like, say, THE POET X. But I don’t think Louisiana’s story is meant to be a realistic fiction story – it’s meant to be a fairy tale (and perhaps a parable), and this is reflected in how the themes are addressed.

    The first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism is that, essentially, life is suffering. Yet we can seek to ease our suffering, which is exactly what Louisiana attempts to accomplish on her journey. Her “way home” is not external, but internal, and as Steve points out – that easing comes with forgiveness, a theme that DiCamillo masterfully delivers on.

    • Ahem, you forgot Robbie, Joe.

      In all seriousness, I do think Robbie and Louisiana are an interesting comparison because both are essentially being raised by grandparents, but not being raised by them. But I’ll forgive you for not mentioning her.

      Your review has me thinking a lot about DiCamillo in a Newbery sense. I think her voice is so striking. Anyone familiar with her work could spot it without a name attached. You compared it to fairy tales. Betsy Bird, I believe, compared it reading through a haze or fog. I compared her work to a Cohen Brothers film. It all takes place in like a hyper reality. I guess we aren’t supposed to discuss negative aspects of the book yet (and I don’t know if this even is a negative) so I’ll wait to bring it up till later.

      I will say, I’m beginning to appreciate DiCamillo the more I read and re-read her. This was possibly my favorite of her more recent fare. The language Steven highlighted above are all perfect examples of this effortless, lyrical, melancholic voice. I LOVED the lines about Granny running out of gas.

      I also liked the subtle connections to food throughout, symbolizing Louisiana’s hunger.

      This title is growing on me…

      • Food!
        Food used so eloquently as security/sign of safety
        In order from appetizers(small acts of kindness) to desserts (ultimate sweetness)!
        Peanuts: (as mentioned by Steven above)
        Bologna sandwiches:
        Burke Allen (the boy) “was the kind of person who, if you asked him for one of something, gave you two instead.” p108
        Cakes:
        –Louisiana’s emotional stumble to the Allen house ends with “The cake smell got stronger and sweeter, and then I saw the pink house.” p134-
        –The anticipation of all the cakes Betty Allen is baking for the raffle. These are cakes that Louisiana does not get to eat. The cakes keep being baked and the homey smells keep coming and the anticipation grows. We know this is the home for Louisiana.
        –Baking a cake and being offered a home:
        After Betty Allen talks to Reverend Obertask while Louisiana waits down the driveway, she invites her to help bake a cake. Betty giving Louisiana baking tasks i.e. time and space to get ready to talk about what really happened with granny and to offer her a home was such an effective and gorgeously done scene.

      • Oh I hadn’t seen this comment yet! I think Coen brother is the perfect comparison. Sorry to have duplicated so many of your thoughts below – I am reading on my phone while putting my son to bed so I am not seeing everything perfectly and I missed this. I agree that the hyper-realism makes sense within the book even if it can be hard to pull out – it makes sense inside its own world.

      • (Wanting to add to Susan’s food list.)

        My favorite was her fixation on the caramels eaten by the pianist, and how said pianist never offered to share. My tummy rumbled for Louisiana every time she made note of an un-offered caramel.

      • Yes, the caramels– DiCamillo kept showing how the church ladies (caramel eater and curler wearer) were not kind and giving people. And then there’s Reverend Obertask, who resembles a “walrus in a religious painting” (HAH!) who seems ineffectual to Louisiana at first but is a great listener, dispenses wisdom and winds up helping her find a home.

      • Courtney Hague says:

        Yes! The food is so evocative in this book. I think DiCamillo does a great job of cuing us into Louisiana’s undernourishment without explicitly telling us that she isn’t being fed, because to Louisiana’s mind she’s greedy for asking for more food because that’s what Grandma says. And I think seeing the food as a stand-in for security and safety is spot on. When the eldest Burke Allen gives her his ice cream that was the moment I knew that she would be safe with the Allens and I think that was when Louisiana knew too.

      • Courtney, I absolutely love your analysis here on something I hadn’t realized, and I think you’re spot-on: “I think DiCamillo does a great job of cuing us into Louisiana’s undernourishment without explicitly telling us that she isn’t being fed, because to Louisiana’s mind she’s greedy for asking for more food because that’s what Grandma says. And I think seeing the food as a stand-in for security and safety is spot on.”

        Her taking all those packets of peanuts is an early clue that she can’t count on when her next meal is coming or whether it’ll be enough.

    • Joe, this is a wonderful explanation and I agree with everything you’ve said. Lousiana is such an amazing character. DiCamillo is a master of capturing the innocence of a child, while sprinkling quirks and fun throughout the character.

  3. I think DiCamillo explores the internal sadness of children in a way that causes her work to stand out. I certainly saw that “woe and confusion” here – Louisiana was a bright spot of a character and yet very present in her is the melancholy of being a child, of not being in control of what happens to you.

  4. I respect the opinions of reviewers much more knowledgeable than myself; but I could not stand the narrator’s voice in Louisiana’s Way Home. I kept picturing Shirley Temple! I gave it one star on Goodreads.

  5. Louisiana was my favorite character in Raymie, so I was excited for a book about her. Often when a quirky side character becomes a main character, you lose some of the quirk and I felt like that happened a little here. She doesn’t sound quite like herself at first. But in the second half, we get more of her calling things by the wrong name and her breathy “oh my goodness”es and she sounds much more like herself.
    Such a good writer and great characters!

    • Kartrina, what I most appricated about what DiCamillo did as she transferred from Raymie’s story to Lousiana, was how rooted Lousiana’s internal voice was. Not sure if that is the best description. Looking through Raymie’s eyes, we were more aware of her oddness. Once we are in Louisiana’s head, her mix of guilelessness, sadness, optimism and wisdom feel more genuine and rooted in her her experiences.

      And can we speak about word choices the author made, I love how Louisiana is a product of living with an old lady. Every time she refereed to her asthma as ‘swampy lungs’, I smiled and wanted to send her an inhaler.

      • DaNae, agree! Thanks for pointing this out. Her vocabulary is old fashioned sounding because it is Granny-influenced. Maybe that’s what made her seem kind of Shirley Temple-ish.

      • Courtney Hague says:

        Agreed. The choice to have her use words that we would mostly expect elderly women to use because she was raised by her Grandma really brought her voice to life for me.

  6. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    I like how DiCamillo introduces a large cast of characters yet gives each a distinctive quirk so the reader can remember them each. This is one of her strengths and it’s definitely present here. Of all the books we read for the committee, I think I can remember the details about more minor characters from this book than from any other.
    I agree that this strategy does give this book more of a folk tale feel because each character is known by their one distinguishing quirk, feature, or catch phrase.

  7. I was getting ready to write a long post about how yes, it’s better if you think of it as a fable, but it needed to be telegraphed better that it’s not very realistic, but then I went to the very first page of the book to shore up my argument, and realized I was totally wrong. From the very beginning the book is talking about curses and stories and dates with destiny. If I shrugged that off because I remembered what Louisiana was like from the previous book that’s on me as a reader for not noticing that the author *was* telegraphing that this is not intended as realistic fiction.

    I can remember reading something about screenplays, where the author was recommending doing something right at the start of the movie to establish was sort of physics the movie will have. Does getting hit by a car mean the hero can roll over the windshield and walk away with a limp that goes away in the next scene, or is the person hit gravely injured, that sort of thing. Books have to do that too, and while I personally was frustrated because I wanted major plot points to be things that could happen in real life, I don’t think there is much of an argument that DiCamillo didn’t set up the “physics” of her book from the first page.

    • And I felt that some of the things that happened in Louisiana were much more believable than things in Just Like Jackie.

      • Like what? Granny getting all her teeth pulled? Louisiana taking over the wheel? Sitting on top of the roof eating candy? Nothing even remotely that far-fetched happens in JACKIE.

      • DiCamillo’s writing and characterization is strong enough to make me accept outlandish things. And I agree with what was mentioned above about setting the stage for a fairy-tale feel.
        Yes, all Granny’s teeth being pulled was ridiculous (the book’s weakest moment, IMO). But eating candy on a roof? Absolutely! A kid driving? Roald Dahl’s Danny drove a stick shift!
        I mentioned some of my problems with Jackie on its discussion page– however I’m at a loss for precise page numbers as I devoted my re-reading time (so many books- so little time) to titles I felt were strong contenders and Jackie was not one of them.

    • But, but, but… the curse isn’t real. And this story ends up not being about destiny at all, but about forgiveness. Granny’s letter to Louisiana completely goes against that idea…

      • I think Kari’s word, “stylized” is more what I meant when I was talking about curses and dates with destiny. It signals right away that this story has a very particular style to it, and that the regular rules of the world don’t apply. Thus it makes it easier to brush away problems with how foster care works (even in the ’70’s), or whether a kid that sings one song at a funeral would earn enough money to stay at a hotel for several days, or whether it’s reasonable that someone could go from perfectly fine to needing every single tooth pulled: this is all part of the idiosyncratic storytelling you’ve been told to expect from the beginning.

        It’s funny to me that I’m arguing so hard for the ways that these aspects of the book are distinguished, when they all drove me up the wall as I was reading the book. But every time I try to make a coherent argument against it, I run up against the difference between not good and Not For Me.

    • I think LOUISIANA is like a Coen brothers movie to me – the hyper-realism and melancholy and zaniness. That’s how I read it. There’s still a lot of heart but it’s very stylized.

      • Monica R Edinger says:

        Wes Andersen even moreso!

      • Courtney Hague says:

        Yes to both of these comparisons. I could envision this being made into a movie by either of those directors and it having the same tone and feel that it has in the book.

      • Yes, I can completely see it (especially after Wes Anderson made Fantastic Mr. Fox).

  8. samuel Leopold says:

    When we first began this journey a couple weeks ago, I had read all the finalists and decided that there were only 6 or 7 that were distinguished enough for my vote consideration. Now…..within the “beautiful storm’ of our discussions, I find the number is more like 12 or 13.
    Louisiana was not on my original “serious contender” list. But, as I re-read it, I tried to look at Louisiana through the eyes of a child and , as Mr.Frost would say, “that has made all the difference.”

    Every quote and thought of this character is genuine—-authentic and accessible to young readers. The wonderful theme of “forgiveness” runs throughout the thread of the story—–built within a plot that is paced perfectly. The “forgiveness” theme comes at me in this story in both a powerful and gentle way. I tell my children—–who are now adults who I hope can also forgive me for my parental imperfections—— all the time that “walking the road of forgiveness is always a journey worth taking”.
    It was a marvelous privilege to take that journey with Louisiana.

    • You’ve brought this up previously Sam, the idea of re-reading, and while I can’t say I’ve completely re-read some of our books, I have revisited large parts of them for our discussions and I would agree. I see how necessary re-reading is for committee members, when getting down to the nitty-gritty.

  9. Mary Lou White says:

    I agree that the writing is beautiful and the characters are rich and full even when they are over the top. Bear with me…I had a strong emotional reaction to this book. Maybe because I was a social worker with homeless teenagers in a former life, this book was a painful and unpleasant read for me. I know there are lots of kids out there living on the edge with no safety net to catch them, and this book really puts that in the reader’s face. When Louisiana’s grandmother deserts her, leaving no money or resources or any adult to care for her, honestly, I just wanted to throw the book across the room. I hear you about the fantastical/fairy tale feel to the book, but that is just not how it felt to me. It was too close to reality for some children and the tension I felt about Louisiana’s vulnerability made me wonder if young readers would feel the same. I question if this book is an appropriate one for its targeted audience.

    • Deborah Ford says:

      I think that’s a fair point. Everyone brings something to the table when they read. I read Blue by Laura Seeger in my workshop today. One woman said she could never read that book to her kids because she had a dog that died. In the same room, a woman said her daughter’s childhood dog just died–this book is perfect to help her heal.

  10. Mary Lou, I can feel the same way when reading books with characters suffering from depression and anxiety, as it hits too close to home. I don’t find any catharsis working through it in fiction.

    I will say that my students who have read it seem to find it easy to root for Louisiana, without being overwhelmed by her situation.

    • Mary Lou White says:

      That’s good to hear, DaNae. I was doing OK with her situation until her grandmother disappeared, and that just seemed both unlikely and unnecessarily cruel treatment from someone who has loved her so much.

      • I read Granny leaving as very believable. It seemed to me that Granny was obviously going through some sort of break down and her mental health led her to believe that leaving Louisiana in a space she decided was safe was a good idea. It was like she set her up to get money (from singing) and to have a room and assumed it would all work out.
        Now, obviously, this wasn’t a responsible choice, but it didn’t feel so far fetched to me within the world of this book.

    • Oops, I mean to say that over here– that I agree with you, Maura!

      • This is probably a terrible comparison. Granny’s disappearance reminded me of when our ancient cat left the house one day and never returned. It was devastating, for a few days we thought she was away visiting our neighbors. They loved her and let her have sleepovers all the time. We were so sad when the dust settled and we figured she went to find a peaceful spot to . . . well, you know. (please don’t tell me any different, I don’t want to think of fast moving predators with sharp teeth) Granny’s leaving, poorly considered as it was, made me think she may have tried to spare Louisiana from watching her physical decline. (Of course, our cat didn’t leave a note. At least we haven’t found one yet.)

      • DaNae, this is absolutely, NOT a terrible comparison. In fact, it’s something I totally thought of today when I was re-reading Granny’s letter. See, I remember Granny’s letter bringing this entire story crashing back to earth for me. This hyper-reality, DiCamillo universe we all talk of didn’t make sense to me because the way I read and interpreted Granny’s letter, undid ALL of that. There was no curse. This isn’t about destiny. And Louisiana isn’t even hers.

        But then I re-read her letter and she very much still mentions the curse. In fact, she’s leaving Louisiana to go face the curse head on by herself. She mentions in her letter that she sees her father everywhere. That he’s calling to her and she’s being summoned to face him. Can Granny’s father still be alive? Is this Granny’s way of essentially saying she’s going off to die in peace? I grabbed that book off my shelf during lunch today, all ready to read that letter again and come on here with ammunition and instead, came away with a greater appreciation for the depth of imagery in this text.

        I’m still perplexed by this one. My gut reaction was I didn’t care for it (which is my gut reaction with many DiCamillo books – I’m re-reading her this year though and bound and determined to become a fan.) But every time I sit down to pound my thoughts out, I circle around to not disliking it as much as I thought I did. Or finding something new that I appreciate about it. My hang up in a Newbery sense, is on what is “distinguished?” There’s no doubt that DiCamillo’s voice is “individually distinct,” but at the same time, does that hurt her in a Newbery conversation? What makes her style of narrative “excellent quality?” Is it really that much of a “significant achievement” for DiCamillo to sound like DiCamillo?

      • Mr. H’s comment about going to the shelf to get the book for ammunition against it, but then finding more things to appreciate so neatly mirrors my own experience that I think I will be much less disappointed if it wins than I thought I would be. I keep being unable to make consistent arguments against it, even though I did not particularly like it myself. On the Someday My Printz Will Come blog they used to talk about how books can be “head or heart” books, and while it’s extra special if what wins is both, when it comes down to it sometimes the “head” books, the ones you appreciate but don’t fully embrace with your whole being, still need to be given their due consideration. I think Louisiana, for me, is becoming a “head” book, even if it’s not a “heart” book.

  11. Jessica Lee says:

    A student told me that she didn’t like read LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME because it made her feel uncomfortable. When I asked her for more explanation, she said, “Well, no one would do that. Just leave a kid in a motel, a kid who already had a hard life. It’s just not ok.” Then she added that she prefers more realistic books.

    For me, it was not whether or not the situation was likely to happen, but Louisiana’s voice that felt wrong to me. Susan called it “cloying.” I was thinking “precocious.” Yes, she was raised by an elderly woman, so would be expected to pick up some of those mannerisms. But it also felt like (don’t hate me!) artifice on the part of the author. Like the 4th grader I chatted with, I like my books to feel real – even a good fantasy story – to feel like it could happen. This story felt too artificial to me.

    • I don’t see Louisiana’s “precociousness” as cloying or artificial – I see it as necessary for her to survive because of what she has to go through with an adult who does not really take care of her. And I think that’s perhaps why some readers feel the discomfort: this type of things actually do happen and that comes off as against what we’d like to believe in human nature.

      • Roxanne, yes! Exactly this.

      • Yes! She’s had to handle many more adult situations and responsibilities than a child in a safer situation would have, and that has led to her analyzing things from a practical, survival stance. But she still is a child and so her thinking is a blend of child approach and survival/adult approach.

  12. Deborah Ford says:

    Late to the party- too much airplane travel this week. Love, love, love Louisiana. Her voice. Granny- no teeth: “The day of reckoning is at hand!” I love that it stands alone–without Raymie. It’s even better when read aloud. I love how the other, so well developed, other characters help her. From the man who lets her take as many packs of peanuts as she wants, to the crow she wants to sit on her shoulder.

    Some of you have said Granny’s character isn’t realistic or believable. Though it is a terrible thing, I think we have to remember that Granny has some issues. And like Julia Sugarbaker once said:

    Julia: “I’m saying this is the South, and we’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them up in the attic. We bring ’em right down to the living room and show ’em off. See, Phyllis, no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.”
    Phyllis: Oh? And which side are yours on Mrs. Sugarbaker?
    Julia: Both.

    Singing for room and board, curlers in her hair, candy bars in a machine. These are all details that make Louisana memorable. They flesh out each character so that if you saw them from across the room, you’d know exactly who they were.

    • samuel leopold says:

      I love Louisiana’s character…and , after a quick re-analysis, I even more firmly believe that her voice is one of the ones I enjoy the most this year.

  13. I’m a huge fan of this book and truly struggle to find flaws. As Sam mentioned above, the concept of forgiveness just rings through this entire little book and I loved that. Louisiana has hard life, as many of her readers will have, but I don’t see that impeding the enjoyment of the book at all.

    I just loved it.

  14. Cherylynn5691 says:

    For me I have less trouble seeing Brangwain Spurge as a fairytale. Louisiana’s Way Home felt like it was rooted in a sad reality with a very naive main character. She was distinct, the town was distinct, the plot had no holes. I admit for me there were other books in the group we are looking at that stood out more to me.

  15. I just finished rereading it and I liked it so much more this time. Part of that may be I listened to it and the reader was really good and her prose is so well-suited to reading aloud. But mainly I think it was that the first time I read it right after reading Raymie. So I was expecting an actual sequel about the three girls and kept expecting her to get back to them. And I had Louisiana and Granny as they are in that book very fresh in my head. But this time I wasn’t, so I was able to enjoy it as it’s own story. I think this may be the very unusual sequel that’s actually better if you haven’t read the first book.
    It’s also a very different type of story than the first, which I think threw me a bit the first time. I noticed all of the fairy tale elements a lot more this time–being lost and abandoned in the woods, the house that smells like cake hiding in the woods like a good version of the gingerbread house, etc. I had somehow completely forgotten about all of the Pinocchio references, but really noticed them this time, in a good way. Particularly I’d forgotten about it opening with her seeing the “Pinocchio” constellation in the sky and then at the end discovering it’s really the big dipper and learning about the north star that will always point her home. So much summed up in just that about her journey from lies to truth and home.

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