Because of Winn-Dixie

by Kate DiCamillo

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The time setting of the novel is unclear, but these events could not have happened before Winn-Dixie grocery stores opened in the 1940s and probably did not occur until after the late 1960s when divorce was more commonly accepted in the South. For the physical locale, DiCamillo sets this charming story in Naomi, Florida, where everyone knows everyone—or at least, people think they know each other. The various settings in the novel emphasize this contrast between what appears to be real and what is real.

The town is populated with seemingly stereotypical characters: a lonely little girl; a preoccupied father; an aging southern belle; a witch in a haunted house; and a criminalized, simple-minded man, among others. DiCamillo plunks them all on the fringes of this small, Southern town and turns a loveable mongrel loose among them, using the "expected" friendliness to assist her characters and emphasize their problems. She focuses on those people who live on the edge of this friendliness, those who are outcast or alone for various reasons, and she uses her settings to emphasize the hurt and need caused by isolation, gossip, and snobbery. In so doing, she creates memorable, rather than stereotypical characters.

The settings within the town also require the reader to look more closely at the characters and their environs. Opal's father is the new preacher at the Open Arms Baptist Church in Naomi. But the church is not actually a church; it is a former Pick-It- Quick store where the congregation sits on lawn chairs. However, it is a friendly place. The members even welcome Winn-Dixie when he succeeds in catching one of the mice that populate the building.

Opal and the preacher move into the Friendly Corners Trailer Park, which is an all-adult residency. Opal, age ten, explains why she was allowed to live there, "because the preacher was a preacher and I was a good, quiet kid . . . 'an exception.'" The all-adult setting only intensifies Opal's feelings of being "an exception" and feeds her sense of loneliness.

As the story opens, DiCamillo immediately captures the reader's attention by creating an unusual meeting in a very common setting, a grocery store. Opal explains, "my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog." The setting for this meeting reinforces the theme of the odd and unusual which is prevalent in the text. Shoppers do not expect to meet dogs in grocery stores. This particular use of setting prepares the reader for the unusual characters that follow and sets the tone for the rest of the story. From start to finish, the contrasts between the expected and the unexpected keep the story moving.

Other venues in the story such as the library, the pet store, and Gloria Dump's backyard, offer more atypical settings for the discovery of answers to Opal's questions. Miss Franny, the librarian, turns out to be far more than the "sad and old and wrinkled" woman she appears to be. She has wonderful stories and magical candy to share. At the pet store, Opal discovers Otis's ability to mesmerize the animals with his music, which he never plays for people, and she also learns he is an ex-prisoner. Gloria Dump's backyard shelters ghosts under trees covered in bottles. These settings symbolize exactly what Opal is searching for: a library is a place where people go to find information and knowledge; the pet store is a place where love can be found; and Gloria Dump and her backyard offer the companionship...

(This entire section contains 690 words.)

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and comfort that Opal seeks. The settings also enhance the intimate mood of the novel. The library is located in the personal setting of a house, the pet store is filled with soothing music, and Gloria Dump's secluded backyard shuts out the rest of the world. In each of these locations, DiCamillo creates a quiet place conducive to sharing and listening.

In addition, the hot, humid weather in Florida also aids the plot. The sudden thunderstorms expose Winn-Dixie's terrible fear and sets up the climactic scene between Opal and her father.

Literary Qualities

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Because of Winn-Dixie is a quest story in which the structural and literary elements combine to create a sense of intimacy. Each character has an individual journey to make, but when they are brought together by Opal and Winn-Dixie, they are bound together by the answer to one central question: What is the most important thing?

DiCamillo uses the first-person point of view to allow Opal to speak directly to the reader. Opal carries the reader breathlessly through the first chapter with nonstop sentences made up of long phrases often joined by "and" and lacking punctuation. This breathless, confiding voice immediately involves the reader in the excitement of Opal's quest.

The intimate, conversational approach to narrative also allows DiCamillo to establish divisions between the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story. Opal interrupts her narrative in chapter 1 with "This is what happened." The chapters that follow introduce the reader to the three main characters (Opal, Winn-Dixie, and the preacher), set up their individual problems, and establish the central conflict of the story. Again, in chapter 6, Opal stops her tale and addresses the reader with "What happened was this." In these chapters, the reader meets and learns about the other characters who will have significant influences on Opal's quest. Finally, in the last chapter, DiCamillo allows Sweetie-Pie's dialogue to bridge the climax and the final scene, "Tell what happened," Sweetie-Pie said. "Tell about that dog." What follows spotlights the last and final lesson Opal will learn about holding on and letting go.

DiCamillo's technique of telling stories within the main story also calls attention to the individual characters and themes and furthers the intimacy between the reader and all the other characters. As each character is introduced into Opal's life, a new story is told, and in each, the author emphasizes the importance of sharing oneself and of listening to others. First, there is Winn- Dixie, who listens patiently while Opal tells him everything about her life. Miss Franny's story is given the same attention as Winn- Dixie and Opal sit patiently listening. Otis plays his music for the pet shop animals that stand still and listen as if mesmerized. Gloria Dump invites Opal to "tell me everything about yourself" and to emphasize the importance of this invitation, Opal says, "I had been waiting for a long time to tell some person everything about me.... I could feel her listening with all her heart, and it felt good."

The commonalities DiCamillo's characters share despite outward differences also draws the characters together. Each has lost something or someone they loved, and yet each has survived. That each survives after suffering such losses is important to Opal for three reasons: first, it reassures her that she is not alone in her pain; second, it teaches her that she will survive the loss; and, finally, it allows her to eventually recognize what is most important.

Through all the stories, DiCamillo emphasizes the truth that life, like the Littmus Lozenge candy, holds both the sweet and the sad. Each character struggles to accept this; each finds strength to do so in part through the friendships established. "Do you think everybody misses somebody?" Opal asks, and Gloria replies, "I believe, sometimes, that the whole world has an aching heart."

Biblical undertones in the text also relate to intimacy. Ruth, of the Old Testament, loved her mother-in-law Naomi and vowed to make her people, "my people," just as Opal makes the outcasts of Naomi her people. Like the Ten Commandments, Opal needs to know ten things about her mother and ten things about Winn-Dixie. Further suggestions of the Bible are found in Gloria Dump's admonishments to Opal not to judge others and to forgive.

DiCamillo also employs a specific technique in developing the character of the preacher. To Opal, and to the reader as well, the preacher is "the preacher" throughout most of the text until the final confrontational scene between him and Opal. That his title and not his name is used for address or reference sets him apart from the others, allowing the reader to experience the emotional distance that Opal herself is experiencing. But after the climactic scene where the issue of his emotional isolation is confronted, Opal refers to the preacher as "daddy," and the reader is allowed to better understand his initial emotional distance and to clearly ascertain his growth and change by the end of the story.

These techniques and approaches work together to strengthen the sense that this story is a shared intimacy—one in which the reader invests a strong emotional interest with the characters and their plights.

Social Sensitivity

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Because of Winn-Dixie not only tells a delightful story, but also it addresses several socially sensitive and pertinent issues that many young people encounter today. The story includes references to alcoholism, prejudice, the elderly, death, single-parent families, and the importance of community. Opal's mother is an alcoholic, as is Gloria Dump. However, the contrast between how the two women deal with alcoholism is clearly evident and used to aid Opal in finding solutions to her own problems.

Opal's mother abandons her family, leaving Opal to struggle with self-doubts and insecurities. She remembers very little about her mother and searches for anything that will keep her mother alive to her, similarities between them, stories, "Just ten things, that's all," she tells her father. She also does this when she loses Winn-Dixie: "I memorized it so if I didn't find him, I would have some part of him to hold on to." Not knowing who to blame for her mother's departure, she unconsciously blames her father, widening the emotional distance between them. In contrast to Opal's mother, Gloria Dump remains to combat her alcohol problem. The whiskey bottles on the tree serve to remind her of her past, and she is honest with others about her drinking problem. This honesty provides Opal with the assurance that each person makes his or her own choices about dealing with problems, thus relieving Opal's concern that perhaps she was the reason her mother left.

DiCamillo paints an all-too-common picture of how prejudice affects group and individual relationships. Her characters are mostly social outcasts: Miss Franny, the elderly woman shut away inside her library and her memories; Otis, ostracized because he was arrested once for a nonviolent, petty offense; Amanda, perceived as cold and distant; and Gloria, known as the witch in town because she lives alone and keeps to herself. Opal learns valuable lessons about prejudice and gains invaluable friendships when she heeds Gloria Dump's advice not to judge people.

The isolation of the elderly is also addressed in the novel. Miss Franny and Gloria are both older women, isolated by those around them because of their perceived peculiarities or physical ailments. It is not until Opal dares to take the time to really notice them that their gifts are recognized.

Another issue explored in the novel is the single-parent family. The preacher struggles with his own pain and sense of abandonment as he attempts to perform his job and to be a father to Opal. Unfortunately, he is not aware of how his preoccupations with these other things are perceived by Opal, and alternately, Opal is not aware of what her father is experiencing. Becoming aware of the needs of everyone involved in a familial crisis, then attempting to change what needs to be changed is a challenge many single-parent families must confront.

All these issues emphasize one possible solution to these problems—the importance of community. DiCamillo builds a family unit for Opal, providing mentorship, friendship, companionship, and self-esteem by bringing together the individual characters. The problems are not completely abolished, but what is accomplished is a strengthening of courage, a feeling of belonging, and most importantly, a sense of hope.

For Further Reference

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Brown, Jennifer M. "Flying Starts: Kate DiCamillo." Publishers Weekly (June 26, 2000): 30. This is a brief article about the author's life, influences on her writing, and her first novel.

"DiCamillo, Kate." In Something about the Author, Vol. 121. Detroit: Gale, 2001. This is a brief introduction to DiCamillo's work that also provides biographical information.

DiCamillo, Kate. "The Wishing Bone." Riverbank Review (Winter 2001/2002): 14-16. This article by DiCamillo discusses the writing process and relates a childhood experience which, for her, holds the same "magic."

H., C. M. Review of Because of Winn-Dixie.The Horn Book (July, 2000): 455. This is a short book review of the novel.

Maughan, Shannon. "A Talk with Kate DiCamillo." http://www.kidsreads. com/authors/au-dicamillo-kate. asp. 2001. A brief interview with the author is presented concerning her life as a writer, influences on her writing, and her new book Tiger Rising.

"Speaking with Kate DiCamillo about Because of Winn-Dixie: A Hymn of Praise to Dogs, Friendship, and the South." Candlewick Press-Authors & Illustrators http: / / asp?b=Author&m=bio&id=1989&pix= n. Accessed March 30, 2002. This publisher's web site includes the author's biographical information and comments on her work.

Swindle, Michael. "Winn-Dixie Woebegone, but Winsome and Wise." Books & Authors winndixO917.htm. September 17, 2000. This site features a synopsis of the story and brief book review.




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