Truly Plaice's whole identity is summed up in just two words uttered by Miss Sparrow, the teacher in her one-room schoolhouse on Truly's first day of school. "You're a little giant!" Truly has known she's different her entire life --- she couldn't be less like her beautiful, dainty older sister, Serena Jane. Having broken all predictions about her birth weight, outgrown her baby clothes shortly after birth and outweighed her older sister, Truly couldn't help but be aware of her physical differences. But to have her life reduced to a freak show only reinforces Truly's alternating feelings of displacement and self-loathing.
Truly's gigantic size sticks out, not only in comparison with Serena Jane's loveliness, but because Aberdeen, their town in upstate New York, is so small and isolated. It’s shrinking rapidly (that is, except for Truly, who just keeps growing), and any hint of difference is ridiculed or rejected. Truly does find comfort and friendship --- in the form of small, brilliant Marcus and mute Amelia --- but she also encounters prejudice, cowardice and outright cruelty.
As Truly grows up and her family's fortunes change for the worse, her story becomes inextricably wound up with that of the town's doctor (and Serena Jane's husband), Robert Morgan. Dr. Morgan (or Bob Bob, as he's known as a boy) is the latest in a long line of Morgan physicians, traveling all the way back to the Civil War, when an army deserter met Aberdeen's town witch, Tabitha Dyerson, a woman whose legacy includes a riotously embroidered quilt and, some say, a mysterious "shadow book" that holds the secrets of healing --- and other secrets as well. When Truly stumbles across Tabitha's secrets, the helpless woman trapped in a too-huge body finally discovers a new kind of power that has nothing to do with physical size or strength.
THE LITTLE GIANT OF ABERDEEN COUNTY is a difficult book to categorize --- some might even call it a true original. With its one-room schoolhouse, provincial politics and herb lore, it sometimes feels old-fashioned, like it could have been set in the 19th century instead of in the 1960s and 1970s. But with its sly humor, social commentary and elegant mixing of genres, Tiffany Baker's debut is definitely set in the modern literary world.
Like John Irving's works, Baker's novel could be called something like "New England grotesque." Her focus on Truly's physical oddities, however, is not meant merely to shock or titillate; instead, the book is just as focused on the small beauties that are able to flourish even in the stifling, conformist environment of Aberdeen County: "Everything in the world has its two faces, however. Weeds sometimes blossom into artful flowers. Beauty walks hand in hand with ugliness, sickness with health, and life tiptoes around in the horned shadow of death. The trick is to recognize which is which and to recognize what you're dealing with at the time."
Far from being absurd, THE LITTLE GIANT OF ABERDEEN COUNTY finds loveliness and meaning in the most unusual guises --- and it marks the advent of a unique new talent.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 30, 2010
The Little Giant of Aberdeen County