Magazine article In These Times

The Big Other

Magazine article In These Times

The Big Other

Article excerpt


The Big Other

TIFFANY BAKER'S DEBUT novel, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, (Grand Central, January) has an enchanting and seductive beginning. The language is lush, the plot is formidable, the characters are intriguing and the tone hints of magic.

But the book's great promise is never quite met, and the ending isn't at all earned. The greater tragedy is that with just a little editing, just a little twisting and tightening, the book would have been a sensation.

Truly Plaice is the tide's giant - a giant whose dimensions we never know. Her height and width is always described only in comparison: a head taller than Marcus, the gardener/cemetery caretaker and her lifelong suitor (who is, in turn, drawn as small, but without specific measurements). Truly is a monstrous kind of big, not too much different than the horses kept on the farm where she grows up.

This lack of precision is both good and bad. On the one hand, our imagination fills in the proportions. Bigness is metaphor: magnanimity, suspicion, goodness, evil. Bigness is Otherness. On the other hand, Baker occasionally undermines her own intent.

At one point late in the novel, Truly describes Marcus standing behind her, "his knees pressed into the backs of mine, keeping me straight and strong." If he's a head shorter, that seems unlikely. And if her legs are particularly stubby, it seems an odd thing to reveal for the first time on page 327. Is this just a detail? Of course. But novels this layered depend on details, and they need to fit together smoothly, like puzzle pieces.

Baker opens the story with Truly taking care of Robert Morgan, her brotherin-law and the scion of a bunch of otiier Robert Morgans, all doctors, all upstanding citizens of Aberdeen, and all heirs to a mysterious quilt. The quilt has powers, for in it are stitched the secrets of one of Robert Morgan's ancestors, a witch and healer named Tabidia (whom everyone-even those out of the family-seems to treat now and again with the familiar "Tabby," a habit that corrodes her persona as compelling and mysterious). Stitched into the quilt are recipes from Tabitha's "shadow book" - in other words, the chemistry behind her potions.

It's the quilt that will give Truly a hand in her destiny-one of the things that Baker does right is allow Truly stubborn and unkind emotions. This will drive her to make mistakes (some too convenient) but will give her a different kind of dimension: depth and complexity. There are times when Truly is patently unlikeable, bordering on wicked, and these are her best moments. If only Baker hadn't felt the need to pull her back, to always remind us of her essential goodness. If only she had let Truly not be so conveniently victimized by the consequences of her size and the stereotypical ignorance of those around her. …

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