[12 April 2009]
It’s hard not to see The Little Giant of Aberdeen County as competing in the market to become the next Water for Elephants or The Memory Keeper’s Daughter—it’s ripe material hanging low on the vine within easy reach of the book clubs. It’s a story of oddity, challenge, suffering, fortitude, and a hint of magic that soothes worldly aches, the very components of a perfect selection of the month.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all need stories like this to foster that special kind of hope that comes through bearing witness to redemption. That our character will resolve the wrongs of their situation is not in question, be it tragic or triumphant, because we reaffirm ourselves in their victories, and that’s what we demand. Cynics deride this as sentimental, but it serves a storytelling need as old as fiction itself. And when it comes at the tail end of facing down some sort of misery, we feel all the better for not just slopping through cheery landscapes devoid of conflict to get to the “feel good” ending. Rather, we retell and re-engrain the core values of betterment and justice.
For Tiffany Baker’s debut novel, that misery is woven through the life tragedies, almost all of which are large, for the giantess of the title. In 1950s rural upstate New York, nestled away inside the small town of Aberdeen, the pending birth of the barber’s second child is all the local gossip. His first child, a daughter named Serena Jane, is universally recognized as eerily, perfectly beautiful. When his wife’s belly balloons to alarming proportions, the town folk bet on the size of what surely must be an equally strapping, robust son to match the sister. But when the child is born, fatally tearing its mother during delivery, interest turns to shame, arrived in the bundle of a misshapen, ugly baby girl that the dying mother names Truly in her befuddled last breath.
From the moment of her birth, then, Truly is a killer. Her father quickly dissolves into depression and alcohol, repulsed by Truly and angry at the town doctor, Robert Morgan, for not saving his wife, while the two-year-old Serena Jane is preternaturally aware of the loss of her mother and the cause of that loss. But what makes Truly stand out beyond all else is that she is huge—huge, doughy, thick-skinned, and distorted. And before she’s reached two herself, Truly is larger than Serena Jane in every dimension. As Truly continues to grow, her father declines, until finally his body gives out, and Serena Jane and Truly are orphaned.
From this point, the lives of the sisters begin to diverge—Serena Jane predictably given deferential treatment for her looks, and Truly treated like an embarrassment for hers. They are soon separated, with Serena Jane going on to live with the pastor and his prim and proper wife, and Truly being foisted off on the Dyersons, Aberdeen’s town riff-raff. Going to live on a downtrodden farm, Truly thinks constantly of her sister and reconciliation, even as she grows to a strange surrogate sisterhood with the Dyersons’ young near-mute daughter Amelia. Thus, even though Truly might be unavoidable, growing larger and thicker and heavier by the year, she’s shunted off, out of sight, an anomaly in a town of simple normalcy.
The mystery of Truly’s condition is eventually resolved by the very doctor who bore her into life, and she learns that she has a pituitary condition, later diagnosed as acromegaly, that’s causing her body to continually expand, but The Little Giant of Aberdeen County isn’t concerned with the struggle to fight a medical condition. Cast aside and orphaned, Truly’s only option is to be who she is in a mean world. As she grows older, she suffers all the expected rejection at the hands of other children, even her own sister. In response, she retreats into the Dyerson’s farm, establishing her bond with Amelia, and building a new relationship with the schoolhouse’s runty bookworm, Marcus. Finally, near the point of Serena Jane’s graduation, she is date-raped by the son of the doctor, a boy destined to inherit the town’s practice as surely as he inherited the name of four generations of Robert Morgans. When they realize he’s gotten her pregnant, they marry and leave town, thus severing Truly from the last of her family.
Unfortunately for Truly, life’s hardships only continue, and the book begins to unravel how our relationships with family and friends are built on layered secrets and mysteries—all of which seem woven into the quilt of one Tabitha Dyerson, a Civil War-era local healer who Aberdeen widely believed to be a witch. The last remaining shred of Tabitha’s life is a quilt that she worked on feverishly up to the moment of her premature death, leaving the town a century of legends about her long lost shadow book. Eventually, Truly inherits the quilt as she is brought into the doctor’s house as a caregiver, and as she uncovers the secret history of the quilt, she also unwinds the tight shell of the world built around her.
One of the most powerful aspects of Baker’s telling of Truly is that she is never exactly clear in our minds. Baker gives us hints of Truly’s appearance as a child, or here and there as a glance in a mirror as she grows older, but for the most part the understanding of her physicality is an experience of her difference—having to wear men’s clothes as a young girl, the way chairs groan in protest of her weight. Truly expounds on her body as a thing, an object that she’s bound to, but with a surprising amount of acceptance—she’s ashamed and angered by her condition, but she knows nothing else and can only look outward from within.
In many ways, Truly is a blank slate for the reader’s imagination, even if we have an idea of “giant” in our minds—in fact, Truly makes it a point of never knowing her own weight, thus leaving even that one detail mysterious and open. Consequently, we forget as often as Truly does that she is any different. Her pains are familiar, and he fears are common, and her heart aches in understandable ways—and the lesson from Baker is obvious: Truly’s acromegaly makes her truly unique, but she is in fact defined by how normally human she is.
That normality includes dark feelings, and this book actually navigates the waters of clichéd “freak” characterizations well. We are certainly sympathetic to Truly, and the deep well of northern resolve that she draws on to overcome her emotional hurts makes her admirable, but she’s by no means an innocent victim throughout. As she winds her way towards the witch Tabitha’s secrets, her intentions are plainly on revenge. Given the choice between mercy and vengeance, Truly is honestly conflicted, and the book comes to its final resolution by tackling death head on, and evaluating what it means to hold power over someone’s life. Contrasting medicine and magic, family and friendship, and the tragically thin line between justice and comeuppance, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County drops some big concepts as it draws to its conclusion, but it leaves them as inferences, well within the story, and up for the reader to ponder externally.
So, yes, as with all book club contenders, Baker’s novel tackles some big themes, but what makes The Little Giant of Aberdeen County work is its core story. Truly isn’t an amazingly complex character with multiple layers to uncover—we know her and her interiority too well for that—but her life has a dramatic arc that Baker handles deftly. The plot skips along like a stone, and some of the grace of the book is in how easily it reads. As a narrator, Truly has a strong voice, distinctly small town and plainspoken, but one that the reader can easily slip into, and Baker doesn’t dwell overly long on any one point or situation. This book is a series of events, interconnected, of course, but clipping steadily along and accumulating weight. If The Little Giant of Aberdeen County doesn’t race towards a tense conclusion, instead telegraphing its punches and easing into the inevitable, it’s all the more in character with the tone of the story.
The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is an easy recommendation, even if it’s not gut-wrenching or painfully gripping. Good but not necessarily great, it’s a well-crafted piece of magical realism in the vein of, say, Alice Hoffman, and certainly one that will keep you entertained in book discussions or on the train to work.