The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is one of those novels that begin at the end, or near the end. Dr. Robert Morgan is being placed in the ground and Truly, the little giant, begins to lose mass as she walks away from his grave. Ok, you have me hooked.
The story is limited third person from Truly’s perspective. Truly’s mother dies while giving birth to her and, even though she was terminally ill with breast cancer, her father blames her for killing her mother. Truly’s older sister, Serena Jane, is a perfectly proportioned porcelain doll whose smocked dresses contrast sharply with the rugged boy’s wear that soons adorns Truly. A series of characters work to destroy Truly’s spirit, starting with her father; then Mrs. Pickerton, who takes care of Serena, but refuses to care for Truly; then the town’s teacher, Ms. Sparrow, who first labels Truly a giant; then Robert Morgan, who rapes and marries Serena Jane and for whom Truly keeps house once Serena Jane takes off. Throughout the plot of Truly’s diminishing spirit and increasing size runs a subplot about a quilt and its curious design that soon intersects with Truly’s own story.
Few people show Truly kindness, themselves all outsiders. Marcus, the tiniest boy in school. The Dyersons, the poorest people in town, who take Truly in when Mrs. Pickerton refuses her. Amelia, their daughter, who remains mute for years and laconic once she does speak. Bobbie, her nephew, who is a beautiful girl trapped in a boy’s body. Those who had been cruel to her show her kindness once they have also reached marginal status.
This is not a complaint about the beautiful prospering and the ugly being neglected, however. Serena James, who is so beautiful it almost hurts to look at her, is not seen for herself, but as an object and it’s possession of her beauty that motivates Robert Morgan to rape her and then emotionally reject her. There is no true happy ending for beauty in this tale, or at least not one that is won by beauty alone.
Along the way, the issue of assisted suicide emerges as well as the question of how much power we should have over our own lives. Truly muses about the way we treat horses (a common literary comparison–they shoot horses don’t they–All Quiet on the Western Front), but says the difference with people is they talk back at you. I think for Baker this storyline is not political, but is more about the question of agency, as put so well in another of my favorite lines, this one from Rango, no man can walk out of his own story. We have agency within the plot, but we are bound by the rules of plot, stuck within the pages of our own stories. What do we choose to make of it?
Love is a major theme. It’s what gives our plots value. Near the end of the novel, Truly reflects on her sister’s choice to leave her son, husband, and sister behind to chase glamour. Truly says, “she never understood that love—especially that of a child—was the most necessary weight you can endure in life, even if it hurts, even if it tugs bags under the skin of your eyes. Without it, the soul skitters to [the] edge of the world and teeters there, confused” (332).
Baker says in “Food for Thought” after the Reading Group Guide that this story began about the men of the Morgan family, but that Truly would not stay quiet. Thank goodness she didn’t.