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, the opening to Kate DiCamillo's beautiful Because of Winn-Dixie, has to be one of the most attention-grabbing openings to a children's books. The reader immediately wants to know why and how Opal went home with a dog instead of the required groceries.
Opal, as everyone calls her, is a sad, lonely 10 year old whose mother left home when Opal was just three; her father is the newly arrived preacher at the Open Arms Baptist Church of Naomi, Florida. He spends so much of his time in preaching, thinking about preaching or preparing to preach that Opal thinks of him as "the preacher" rather than "Daddy".
This is a wonderful book about how a lovable stray dog transforms the lives of Opal and her father, and helps Opal to make friends with a variety of people in the neighbourhood, from Miss Franny Block, the little old lady who is the librarian and mistakes Winn-Dixie for a bear, to Otis, the man who runs the local pet store and agrees to let Opal work at the store, keeping it clean and tidy, in order to pay for a dog collar and leash. Then there's Sweetie Pie Thomas, a 5 year old, who invites Opal to her 6th birthday party in September after falling in love with Winn-Dixie, and Gloria Dump, the old woman with a wild backyard, whom the neighbourhood boys Stevie and Dunlap, believe to be a witch.
The best thing which Winn-Dixie does, however, is to break down the barrier that's grown up between Opal and her father. Opal and Gloria decide to hold a party in her backyard and Opal invites all her new friends, her father, and just as the party is getting started, a thunderstorm begins; in the rush to get the food and decorations inside, Opal forgets to keep an eye on Winn-Dixie, who has a pathological fear of thunderstorms. Believing he has run away, Opal and her father go in search of him throughout the town. When her father suggests that they head back to Gloria's after they fail to find Winn-Dixie, Opal confronts him and he reveals that he misses Opal's mother as much as she does, but he doesn't believe she will come back. She used to drink a lot and hated people judging her just because she was the preacher's wife. Winn-Dixie's fear of thunderstorms acts as a catalyst, allowing Opal and her father to reconnect with each other. Afterwards Opal refers to her father as "Daddy", not "the preacher". When they get back to Gloria's house, they discover Winn-Dixie had been there throughout the thunderstorm, hiding under the bed !
The Because of Winn-Dixie movie was released last year, but I have yet to get hold of it, to see just what the film-makers did with it.