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Louisiana Elefante, the tiny girl with the great big name, first showed up as one of three friends — the Three Rancheros — in Minnesota writer Kate DiCamillo's "Raymie Nightingale," a finalist for a 2016 National Book Award.

Louisiana had "swampy lungs" and pinned her blond hair back with rabbit barrettes. Her trapeze-artist parents (the Flying Elefantes) were dead, and she lived a destitute existence in a small Florida town with her peculiar grandmother.

We learn just how peculiar Granny was in "Louisiana's Way Home," DiCamillo's new novel for middle-grade readers, and her first sequel.

The story is told in Louisiana's distinctive and utterly believable voice. A great deal of the story, she warns us right away, "is extremely sad."

In the dead black of 3 a.m., Granny shakes Louisiana awake. "The day of reckoning has arrived!" Granny says, and the two climb into the car and head off. Granny has done this before, so Louisiana simply goes back to sleep. But this time is different; when she awakens, they are somewhere in Georgia, and they're not going back.

The story that unfolds from there is, indeed, extremely sad, a tale of leaving cherished things behind and moving on.

Louisiana, Granny tells her, carries the "curse of sundering," and it is true that with this trip she has now been torn asunder from all that she loves — the state of Florida, the two other Rancheros, her dog and her cat — and she is beyond bereft.

"I have been made to leave home against my will," she tells a man who gives them a ride when they run out of gas.

"That right there is the story of the world," he replies.

And that right there is the story of Louisiana, abandoned twice before age 12. Before the journey is over, she will have discovered that everything she believed about herself and her past was a lie, and she will be forced to make a life-changing decision.

Louisiana is a compelling character, a thoroughly believable blend of weak and strong ("There are the rescuers in this world and there are the rescued. I have always fallen into the second category"), poetic and practical ("The sun was bright. It was lightening up the splotches and stains on the windshield and making them look like glow-in-the-dark stars that someone had pasted there as a surprise for me").

She is highly resourceful. When her grandmother collapses in the back seat in unbearable toothache pain, Louisiana takes the wheel to find a dentist.

"I felt a wild shot of joy go through me. I made the car go faster. … I loved driving!"

Over and over, Louisiana experiences joy in the midst of her anguish — at the splotchy stars on the windshield, the acceleration of the car, the smell of fresh-baked cake, the glossy feathers of a crow, the taste of a bologna sandwich, the warmth of a new friend's hand.

Almost effortlessly, DiCamillo explores some of the biggest, most important questions of life — What is home? What is family? Who decides what kind of person we get to be? — in this deceivingly simple and profoundly moving novel.

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. • 612-673-7302 • @StribBooks

Coming Wednesday in Variety: A conversation with Kate DiCamillo.

Louisiana's Way Home
By: Kate DiCamillo.
Publisher: Candlewick, 227 pages, $16.99.
Event: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 6, hosted by Red Balloon Bookshop. SteppingStone Theatre, 55 N. Victoria St., St. Paul. Sold out.