‘Little Giant,’ little gem

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“The Little Giant of Aberdeen County” is the kind of book you hold in your hand like a gem, a precious thing that gives you comfort and somewhat indulgent pleasure.

The novel, from Grand Central Publishing, is Tiffany Baker’s first. Often a “first” means the reader must forgive problems with plot or characterization, language or style, but not so in the case of “The Little Giant of Aberdeen County,” a queer kind of folktale about family relations, friendships, small-town intolerance, witchcraft and themes of redemption and revenge.

I say “queer kind” of folktale not because there is a gay character, which there is, but because “Aberdeen County” is populated by some who live outside the bounds of “normal” society, because protagonist Truly Plaice breaks the rules for gender and sex, because the story is about an odd-woman-out who triumphs over brutality, harassment and intolerance.

Truly is the youngest of two daughters. Her mother dies giving her birth and her father, a broken man incapable of caring for his kids or himself, dies not too many years later. The eldest daughter, town princess Serena Jane, goes to live with a woman who cares for her like a China doll. But Truly, a plus-sized tot who at one-and-a-half is wearing her father’s shirts, isn’t wanted there. She finds a home on a farm on the outskirts of town with the outcasts of the town.

Truly suffers torment at school, where the teacher calls her a “little giant” and students hurl insults. Stoic, she doesn’t turn the other cheek, she just plows forward: “All that fat and muscle hanging off my frame was like a suit of armor laid overtop my spirit. …I’d taken all the misery thrown at me and absorbed it like salt sucking up water.”

Chapter by chapter in “The Little Giant of Aberdeen County,” the plot develops, taking some surprising twists.

And chapter by chapter, “the little giant” grows – taller and heavier and stronger – to about 400 pounds.

Truly needs that strength as an adult, when she finds herself taking care of her sister’s shy, unathletic son and her sister’s husband, Robert Morgan, the man Truly acknowledges killing in the book’s first pages: “Technically speaking, I guess you could say I killed Robert Morgan, but I did it only because he insisted.”

Dr. Robert Morgan – the villain in this folktale, a man whose “eyes were shining yellow” – comes from a long line of Dr. Robert Morgans. The first was a Civil War deserter who was looking for a quiet out-of-the-way place to practice his medical skills. He married Tabitha, the town witch, who was widely considered to be more skilled at healing than the doctor and who, as legend has it, hid away her spells in the Morgan home before she died.

Settling into the Morgan home, a determined Truly sets out to discover Tabitha’s secrets. What she finds is precious knowledge that gives her comfort and ever-so indulgent pleasure.

Truly’s is a big story in a little gem of a book.