Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Tiffany Baker's The Little Giant of Aberdeen County has made a fantastic splash this year, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about during my last library visit.

It's an odd sort of book. It has all the trappings of the typical Southern novel: heroine named Truly, the small-town claustrophobia, the memories of a one-room schoolhouse and farm chores, the generations-deep roots. Even the title and cover suggest a long-passed, rural Southern life. But the "Aberdeen County" of the title is actually in Massachusetts, and the book takes place from approximately 1940 (my estimated year of Truly's birth) to somewhere in the 1980s.

As implied in the title, the book chronicles the life of Truly Plaice, a real, bonafide giant, and her sister Serena Jane. Truly was a celebrity before she was even born, with the whole town taking bets on her weight. They were shamed when they learned that not only was the baby they'd all been betting on female, but that the mother did not survive the birth. As a child, Truly had to live with an alcoholic, neglectful father who never recovered from the death of his wife, and also with the weight of comparisons between herself and her china-doll older sister, Serena Jane.

Their world was shattered with the death of their father, and the siblings split up. Serena Jane went to live with the minister and his wife in town. Truly went to live on the edge of town with a poor farming family. In an interesting twist, though, it was Truly who became content with her life, where her freakish size and strength were valued assets rather than liabilities. Serena Jane, on the other hand, chafed under the constraints of small-town life and dreamed of escape to Hollywood and an acting career.

The book takes an odd turn at this point, when Serena Jane becomes trapped by getting pregnant by Robert Morgan, the latest in a long line of Dr. Robert Morgans in town. She marries him, and has the baby, but ultimately runs off. Truly somehow winds up moving in with Dr. Robert Morgan, who is set up as some sort of monster. But, at least for me, the menace never fully materializes. He seems like a jerk, to be sure, and uber-annoying to live with, but not a horrible person, outside of one act which I won't detail here since it's a key plot point.

Morgan makes Truly's life miserable, but also unwittingly opens a door for her. When Robert Morgan's great-grandfather came to town after the Civil War, he married a legendary "witch" who was really just knowlegeable about herbal medicine. Generations had searched for her famous "shadow book" that contained all of her knowlege, but Truly alone uncovered it, and began putting it to work, first for the minor ailments that plague everyone from time to time, then for subtle revenge over the doctor, and finally to cross the ultimate line and end life as an act of mercy.

Euthanasia has captured the public's imagination ever since the Nancy Cruzan case in the late 1980s, when her parents fought all the way to the Supreme Court to be allowed to unplug the machines that kept her body alive long after her life had ended by all but the most basic biological definition. It was the key plot point of my most recent serious book, Buffalo Lockjaw, and of many other books, movies and television shows. But rarely do they discuss what happens on the other end of that decision, after the life has been ended.

This book attempts that but doesn't seem to come to any meaningful conclusions. Overall, the book is rather meandering and disjointed. It contains some memorable characters, but also some very stilted scenes. Truly lives in the community her entire life, but people never seem to get used to her size and continually make fun of her almost right to her face. I had a hard time believing them, just as I did in understanding why Truly continued to stay at the doctor's house. She explained it, sure -- first for her nephew, then, later, for a chance at revenge and also at medical treatment for her condition. But the explanations rang sort of hollow to me.

Overall, I'd say this book is sort of like a dinner of popcorn, cereal and some spare leftover lettuce. It's somewhat enjoyable and even a little satisfying, but never really hangs together.

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