Rob is a young boy whose mother died of cancer, and whose dad is down on his luck. They live in a motel in backwoods Florida where Rob’s dad works as a janitor for a pittance. When playing out in the woods, Rob finds a mysterious caged tiger. DiCamillo sets this all up with a beaut of an opening paragraph:
That morning, after he discovered the tiger, Rob went and stood under the Kentucky Star Motel sign and waited for the school bus just like it was any other day. The Kentucky Star sign was composed of a yellow neon star that rose and fell over a piece of blue neon in the shape of the state of Kentucky. Rob liked the sign; he harbored a dim but a abiding notion that it would bring him good luck.
The writing is strong, though not overly complex. “Abiding” may be the biggest word in the book, which is targeted for readers on the younger side of young adult. It’s not a kiddy book by any means however. Tiger Rising deals with some pretty heavy themes: death, mourning, race and class, bullying, infidelity–as well as maturity, loyalty, and foregiveness.
Rob struggles at school. He is bullied, and picked on. His legs are covered in a rash that kids and faculty fear is contagious. It’s not; it’s a stress rash, or as Willie May, the black maid at the Kentucky Star, advises him, welled-up sadness he needs to let up to his heart.
He becomes friends with the new girl at his school, Sistine Bailey, who come from an affluent, yet broken, home. She is a troubled girl, coming to terms with her father’s abandonment. She is bossy and snobbish, but also vulnerable. Rob takes a shine to Sistine, and eventually brings her to the tiger, and she is determined that they should free it.
The various metaphors associated with the tiger, and Rob’s rash, and Sistine’s name aren’t all that veiled, but they don’t need to be. DiCamillo treats the various themes with a gentle touch, offering the readers lessons to be learned without descending into preachy didacticism.
At just over a hundred pages and not a huge amount of words per page, it’s a short and sweet book. And it is very good, a National Book Award finalist in fact. It would make a fine novel for younger readers, and for older readers like myself, it feels almost like a long short story, one well worth a read.
Similar Reads: If I Stay (Forman), Maniac McGee (Spinelli)