Magnetic North’s “We Belong.” My favorite line: “We’re getting tired of proving we belong.”
Kate DiCamillio tells an immigrant’s tale in The Tiger Rising. More specifically, it is the story of two immigrant children and the tiger from the title (who could also be considered an immigrant). All three are unwillingly transplanted into a new environment and expected to flourish as if nothing has changed. The main character, Rob, is forced from his home in Jacksonville to Lister, Florida by his father. Both father and son are coping with the recent death of Rob’s mother. Sistine’s mother is originally from Lister but moved away to New Jersey as soon as she had the chance. Now, following a divorce from her cheating husband, she has uprooted Sistine from her familiar Jersey home and moved back to Lister. And the tiger… its roots are never revealed but it is quite clear that it is not native to Lister. It was acquired by Mr. Beauchamp, the owner of the motel that employees Rob’s father, as payment for a gambling debt.
It is Rob’s glimpse of the tiger, as out of place in Lister, Florida as he is, that begins the story. On the bus ride to school, it is his thoughts about the tiger that keep him at a safe emotional distance from his classmates’ bullying. It’s never revealed what started the bullying. It could’ve been the chronic rash on his legs, his being from Jacksonville, his father being poor, or some combination of all three. What is clear, however, is that there is no help from the authority figures around him. Not from the bus driver, who whistles as Rob is hit and punched and verbally denigrated. And not from the school principal, who sides with the bullies’ parents.
Rob copes by placing his pains into a mental suitcase. Sistine, on the other hand, fights back. Like Rob, Sistine is also new to Lister but when the bullies on the bus target her she meets them head on and goes as far as bullying them back. Where it is not clear what causes the rashy scars on Rob’s legs, it is very clear where Sistine gets the blood and bruises on her knuckles. In Rob’s silent passivity, Sistine aggressively barks about her dislike for Lister’s native children. She openly expresses her unwillingness to assimilate to her new surroundings.
Rob and Sistine are not immediate friends despite their shared situations. However, after Rob reveals he is familiar with the place Sistine is named after (the Sistine Chapel) he and Sistine become closer. Rob, the one who passively accepts his new role in his new home, and Sistine, the one who fights back against the status quo and aggressively refuses to assimilate into her new home, represent the two choices immigrant children make — especially older children.
The Tiger Rising is a fast read but despite its brevity it is a successful reflection on love and loss. Rob and his father cope with the death of his mother in like ways and I have to wonder what’s in his father’s suitcase. Sistine and her mother also seem to manage their loss in the same manner. Both want to recreate Lister into the image of the life they had in New Jersey. These two attitudes, Rob and his father’s wanting to blend into their new environment and Sistine and her mother’s desire to recreate a part of their former life are examples of the immigrant experience (as is the taunting and bullying they endure at the hands of the Lister natives).