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Fierce Little Thing


Fierce Little Thing

From Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, the bestselling author of BITTERSWEET and JUNE, comes FIERCE LITTLE THING, an ambitious, mesmerizing coming-of-age story about five children turned grownups who are forced to deal with the repercussions of a decades-old incident and the lies that brought them there.

For Saskia, adult life began the day her younger brother died. Her father went to jail, her mother headed to Mexico, and her wealthy, powerful grandmother sent her to live with the Pierces, family friends with a young teen around her age. But when Saskia leaves her grandmother’s sprawling Maine mansion for the Pierces’ Manhattan loft, she finds a family as full of dysfunction as her own. Philip Pierce has downgraded his family from their swanky Upper East Side apartment for a loft in Chelsea; his wife, Jane, is off in Ghana, Bali and Paris buying exotic fabrics for her upscale boutique; and Xavier, their painfully beautiful son, is living like a young bachelor with his more or less single father. Although Saskia is eager to build a home with Philip and Xavier, she is shocked when Philip announces to the children --- while his wife is off in Japan --- that they will be summering in Maine. But these are not the New England summers to which Saskia is accustomed.

"Nail-biting, moody and every bit as compelling as the cult leader at its center, FIERCE LITTLE THING is a powerful coming-of-age tale about the ways that we are forever changed by the traumas, lies and betrayals of our youth."

After consulting a map from a man named JimBob and completing a treacherous trip through the undergrowth, Saskia and her newfound family arrive at Home, a commune of sorts settled under a cathedral of greens in a valley. While the people do not look strange at first glance --- aside from the mother and daughter decked out in long braids and starched white pinafores --- it is obvious that Philip has taken the children somewhere silently dangerous. And at the center of it all is Abraham, Home’s charismatic, beguiling leader, a man who immediately seems to focus on Saskia in a way that no adult --- no person --- has since the tragic loss of her brother.

Saskia blossoms under the gaze of Abraham, even while the commune crackles with tension. She learns to forage, throw hatchets and bake the bread that is the life force of the dining hall. Xavier, too, finds a home in his friendship with Ben. Overcome with the wonder of it all, Philip decides to make a massive --- but highly divisive --- donation to the commune. With the three of them finally gaining acceptance, Saskia soon sheds the worst of her sadness...just as Philip sheds his rose-colored glasses and decides to leave Home.

It makes sense that Saskia is heartbroken to leave the place where she found friends and family and learned new skills, but she has a secret, too: the ghost of her little brother has found her at Home, and it is only in the cabins and foliage of the valley that she can sense his nearness. Returning to New York leaves her bereft, amplifying and strengthening her belief in Home, Abraham and the commune’s mantra of “Unthinging oneself.” When Abraham’s righthand woman shows up to bring Saskia back Home, she jumps at the chance, changing her future forever.

Years later, an adult Saskia has locked herself in her grandmother’s --- now her --- home and cut off all communication with the other children from Home. So when Xavier, Issy and Cornelia appear on her doorstep asking her to come back Home with them one last time, it takes some serious begging. But they know something that Saskia doesn’t: someone is aware of what they did that last summer at Home, and all three of them have been receiving threatening notes written in the unique cadence of Abraham’s voice. That someone is adamant that they all face what they’ve done, or they will be outed to their families, friends and communities.

In alternating storylines, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore highlights key moments in Saskia’s life at Home and her adult journey back to the hallowed grounds where she faced life and death; learned the true hold of power; and reunited with her ghostly brother. If you’re thinking that Home reeks of a cult, you’re exactly right, and Beverly-Whittemore crafts both the cult and its ideologies and enigmatic leader expertly. Cult fiction is not new, and I love a good cult thriller, but what she does here is unique in that she never hides from her readers exactly what Home is. Right from the start, it is easy to see --- almost laughably so --- the sway that Abraham has over his community, the control of food and free time, and, of course, the massive donation that Philip makes, and how quickly Abraham turns it into a moment of empowerment for the group. As a child, Saskia cannot see what Abraham is doing, but we can, and it is downright painful to watch this traumatized, neglected and lonely girl pulled into the group’s center.

In the present-day timeline, it is easy to pinpoint the effects of the cult’s trauma on its youngest members. Saskia is locked in a gilded prison; Xavier is unable to commit to a family; and Issy cannot seem to put down roots. But even more poignant is the hold that Home still has over each of them, especially Saskia. Sure, they’re being blackmailed to return there, but Beverly-Whittemore crafts the tension so spectacularly that it is difficult to ignore the pull of Home, and the friendships and families that were built there. This is a character-driven, slow-burn thriller, but it is creatively structured and just eerie enough to keep you glued to its pages.

That said, though I was desperate to learn the truth about what the children did that long-ago summer and why Saskia alone felt so drawn to Home, at times the novel felt a bit too long. The first half dragged a bit, and compared to the shocking finale, it appeared that Beverly-Whittemore was overcompensating. She is tremendously skilled at evoking a sense of place and a sensation of horror, but her more drawn-out chapters felt like they were lacking the confidence that came later in the book.

Nail-biting, moody and every bit as compelling as the cult leader at its center, FIERCE LITTLE THING is a powerful coming-of-age tale about the ways that we are forever changed by the traumas, lies and betrayals of our youth.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 30, 2021

Fierce Little Thing
by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore