India Opal Buloni, called Opal by the people who know her best, thought love walked out on her when her mother left seven years ago. Ever since, this young girl has waited for her mother's return, questioning her father about this woman, now a stranger, so that she would recognize her when she came back. But in waiting, the heroine of Kate DiCamillo's heartfelt debut story, Because of Winn-Dixie, learns valuable lessons about friendship, love, and understanding.
The summer ten-year-old Opal and her father move to Naomi, Florida, is the same summer Opal adopts Winn-Dixie, the scrappy dog abandoned in the town grocery store. Her canine pal, with a lively spirit matching its new owner, accompanies Opal as she meets new people. One afternoon Winn-Dixie wanders off, and Opal finds her dog snacking on peanut butter at the house of the woman deemed a witch by Opal's bothersome playmates. To her surprise, this "witch" is actually Gloria Dump who has wrinkly old skin and wears a big floppy hat adorned with printed flowers. In their regular visits, Opal reads Gone with the Wind to Gloria, whose eyes have weakened with age, and tells her about her latest adventures. In turn, this "witch" acts as a mother-figure to Opal, teaching her about being tolerant of others and their mistakes.
Opal also befriends the very wealthy librarian Miss Franny Block, who shares great stories about her past, including a tale about her great-grandfather, whose family members died while he fought for the South in the Civil War. Grief-stricken after his return from battle, he decided he wanted to live the remainder of his life filled with sweetness. Thus, he invented Littmus Lozenge candies that tasted like a combination of rootbeer and strawberry with a secret ingredient mixed in -- sorrow. In Because of Winn-Dixie, these candies symbolize that even though life sometimes deals people a bit of sadness, there is always so much to appreciate.
This lesson initially escapes Opal, as she bemoans the loss of her mother. But over time, Opal makes new friends, and her days become increasingly sweet. She finds charm in quiet Otis, a former jailbird and now pet-shop worker whose lyrical music touches all of the animals in the shop. She reaches out to the pinch-faced Amanda who has experienced a deep tragedy at a young age. And she learns to tolerate the bothersome Dewberry brothers who tease her (as many boys do when they have fond feelings toward a girl).
Enveloped by the security that her new community brings, Opal finally appreciates life's treasures and begins to accept that her mother is never coming back. By the end of Because of Winn-Dixie, Opal truly understands Gloria has been telling her all along: "...[Y]ou can't hold on to anything. ...[Y]ou can only love what you've got while you've got it." The spirit of DiCamillo's delightful story about Opal echoes long after the last page has been read.
Read an Excerpt
My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer 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. This is what happened: I walked into the produce section of the Winn-Dixie grocery store to pick out my two tomatoes and I almost bumped right into the store manager. He was standing there all red-faced, screaming and waving his arms around.
"Who let a dog in here?" he kept on shouting. "Who let a dirty dog in here?"
At first, I didn’t see a dog. There were just a lot of vegetables rolling around on the floor, tomatoes and onions and green peppers. And there was what seemed like a whole army of Winn-Dixie employees running around waving their arms just the same way the store manager was waving his.
And then the dog came running around the corner. He was a big dog. And ugly. And he looked like he was having a real good time. His tongue was hanging out and he was wagging his tail. He skidded to a stop and smiled right at me. I had never before in my life seen a dog smile, but that is what he did. He pulled back his lips and showed me all his teeth. Then he wagged his tail so hard that he knocked some oranges off a display, and they went rolling everywhere, mixing in with the tomatoes and onions and green peppers.
The manager screamed, "Somebody grab that dog!"
The dog went running over to the manager, wagging his tail and smiling. He stood up on his hind legs. You could tell that all he wanted to do was get face to face with the manager and thank him for the good time he was having in the produce department, but somehow he ended up knocking the manager over. And the manager must have been having a bad day, because lying there on the floor, right in front of everybody, he started to cry. The dog leaned over him, real concerned, and licked his face.
"Please," said the manager. "Somebody call the pound."
"Wait a minute!" I hollered. "That’s my dog. Don’t call the pound."
All the Winn-Dixie employees turned around and looked at me, and I knew I had done something big. And maybe stupid, too. But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t let that dog go to the pound.
"Here, boy," I said.
The dog stopped licking the manager’s face and put his ears up in the air and looked at me, like he was trying to remember where he knew me from.
"Here, boy," I said again. And then I figured that the dog was probably just like everybody else in the world, that he would want to get called by a name, only I didn’t know what his name was, so I just said the first thing that came into my head. I said, "Here, Winn-Dixie."
And that dog came trotting over to me just like he had been doing it his whole life.
The manager sat up and gave me a hard stare, like maybe I was making fun of him.
"It’s his name," I said. "Honest."
The manager said, "Don’t you know not to bring a dog into a grocery store?"
"Yes sir," I told him. "He got in by mistake. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.
"Come on, Winn-Dixie," I said to the dog.
I started walking and he followed along behind me as I went out of the produce department and down the cereal aisle and past all the cashiers and out the door.
Once we were safe outside, I checked him over real careful and he didn’t look that good. He was big, but skinny; you could see his ribs. And there were bald patches all over him, places where he didn’t have any fur at all. Mostly, he looked like a big piece of old brown carpet that had been left out in the rain.
"You’re a mess," I told him. "I bet you don’t belong to anybody."
He smiled at me. He did that thing again, where he pulled back his lips and showed me his teeth. He smiled so big that it made him sneeze. It was like he was saying, "I know I’m a mess. Isn’t it funny?"
It’s hard not to immediately fall in love with a dog who has a good sense of humor.
"Come on," I told him. "Let’s see what the preacher has to say about you."
And the two of us, me and Winn-Dixie, started walking home.
Because of Winn-Dixie. Copyright (c) 2000 Kate DiCamillo. Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.