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FICTION

A Small-Town Figure

The heroine takes on the village that pays her no respect.

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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, January 4, 2009; Page BW07

THE LITTLE GIANT OF ABERDEEN COUNTY

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By Tiffany Baker

Grand Central. 341 pp. $24.99

In this month's issue of her magazine, Oprah directs our attention once more to a perennially fascinating subject: her weight. "How Did I Let This Happen Again?" the talk-show diva cries as she soars past 200 pounds and 1.4 million subscribers. She may not know a good diet, but she certainly knows the recipe for success, and it's one cleverly borrowed by Tiffany Baker in her first novel, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, which throws in quilting and witchcraft for extra O-ppeal.

Baker's gargantuan narrator weighs in somewhere north of 400 pounds, but you'll be panting to keep up with her through this gothic tale of murder, revenge and redemption. Truly Placie begins her story at the end, at the gravesite of her nemesis: "Technically speaking," she says, "I guess you could say I killed Robert Morgan, but I did it only because he insisted." How this elephantine woman triumphed over the town's most powerful man is the secret that The Little Giant of Aberdeen County reveals, one surprising chapter at a time.

Of course, Baker plays upon our morbid fascination with Truly's bizarre appearance. She suffers from a syndrome called acromegaly, in which the pituitary gland produces excess growth hormone. Owing to her father's anger at the town doctor, she never receives treatment for this condition, and so she grows and grows. At 1-and-a-half she's already wearing her father's shirts. Later, she needs special clothes -- sewn together dresses, even sheets -- to cover her "circus-like proportions." (She's a "disaster in plaid.") The teacher at her one-room school declares her "a little giant," and the other students are even worse: "Hey, Truly," one taunts, "come sit on this here rock. You'll crush it, and we'll have us some marbles." She's stoic in the face of these insults, but such ridicule and the accompanying loneliness take a toll: "All that fat and muscle hanging off my frame," she says, "was like a suit of armor laid overtop my spirit. And so far, I'd taken all the misery thrown at me and absorbed it like salt sucking up water."

Truly's pathetic adolescence -- including the early death of her parents, and a cruel new guardian -- is all rather standard melodrama, but the real focus of the novel's first half is her pretty sister, Serena Jane. "The two of us were as opposite as sewage and spring water," Truly says. She understands the paradoxical role she plays in supporting Serena Jane's striking appearance: "Pretty can't exist without ugly . . . I made my sister beautiful without her even trying." That relationship between the unusually beautiful and the unusually ugly becomes a major theme, as both Serena and her sister find their lives determined by their bodies, but not in the way one might expect. Beauty becomes a kind of prison for Serena, while Truly's grotesque form turns her invisible and allows her "to slip through cracks no one in Aberdeen would ever think possible." When you're contemplating murder, that's a handy quality to have.

A gothic novel needs a good villain, and Baker supplies one in the form of Robert Morgan, the latest in a series of Morgans who have served as Aberbeen's doctors. "His eyes were shining yellow," Truly tells us, and "his teeth and chin looked particularly pointy, giving him the semblance of a hairless wolf." He pursues Truly's beautiful sister with canine aggression, but, in a horrible twist, his rapacious desire leads him into a strained relationship with Truly, whose ghastly appearance makes her the last person he would ever want.

During the Civil War, the first Robert Morgan married the town's healer. Rumor has it that she was a witch and that she hid her spell book before she died, but no one has been able to find it, and the Morgan doctors -- all strict men of science -- insist the whole story is poppycock. Can Truly discover the truth of Tabitha's power in time to defend herself against Dr. Morgan's macabre interest? There's a creepy touch of menace here that Nathaniel Hawthorne would have appreciated.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County reaches for more complex issues such as euthanasia and sexual orientation, but those themes don't develop much depth. It hardly matters; Baker knows how to spin an alluring plot, and she tells this emotional story in a lush voice that's spiked with just a taste of self-pity. She has a good sense of the dark comedy of melodrama, too, even if Truly's words of wisdom are sometimes a little too -- forgive me -- heavy-handed: "My body," Truly tells us, "sponged up the world's pain like bread in the bottom of a gravy tray." Yes, that's bad, but it's deliciously bad, like a large bag of gothic potato chips, and once you start, you just can't stop.

If Truly sometimes shatters the illusion of her story by telling us information that she couldn't possibly know -- people's secret actions, even their thoughts and dreams -- well, we're willing to let it go. Baker's plus-sized narrator has won us over, and we're rooting her on in a battle against Dr. Morgan and her ever-growing body. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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