Once upon a time, there were two sisters. The oldest was so beautiful that her mother used to stay up late at nights, embroidering roses and ladybugs on her clothes and decorating her daughter “like a cake.”
When the youngest was born, the entire town camped out in front of her parents’ house, taking bets on how big the baby would be.
Tiffany Baker doesn’t start her story with the words “once upon a time,” but she easily could have. Her debut novel, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County spins an American fairy tale that’s part Alice Hoffman, part Brothers Grimm. The wolf, the princess, the dead mother, the giant, the witch – all are present.
There’s even a prince in disguise.
Baker, like Gregory Maguire of “Wicked,” has the wit to realize that the witch’s story is more interesting than the princess’s. There are actually two in “The Little Giant of Aberdeen County”: Tabitha Dyerson, who was the town’s healer before the first doctor came loping into town after the Civil War; and Truly, the town’s “little giant” and the first person to unlock the secret of where Tabitha hid her “spells.”
“After all, spinsters have always been a social problem all up and down history, and spinsters with spells are even more unappealing,” Truly tells the reader as she recounts the history of Tabitha’s decision to marry that first doctor, Robert Morgan, whose descendants still bear his name and profession.
“The fairy child and the ugly duckling,” as Truly calls herself and her older sister, are orphaned in short order, in true fairy-tale tradition. Truly’s mother dies during her birth – due not to Truly’s size, as her dad and the rest of the town believe, but to cancer.
After their dad succumbs to alcoholism, “satiny” Serena Jane is fussed over by the preacher’s wife, while ungainly Truly is sent to live at the broken-down farm of Tabitha’s luckless descendants, who have a daughter her age.
From a distance, Truly watches as Serena Jane is pursued by the fifth Robert Morgan, “with his long, lupine teeth.”
“Robert Morgan never liked a thing in his life unless he got to take the first bite out of it, and he never let a thing go, either, until it was chewed all the way down to skin and bone,” the grown-up Truly recounts. “Even his narrow, prowling walk told you he was a man of limitless appetite – hungry all the time and yet never filled all the way up.”
Unfortunately, princesses in fairy tales are rarely taught how to battle monsters, and Serena Jane is no exception. It falls to Truly, now larger than most men and still growing, to slay the wolf.
Truly’s teacher is the first one to call her a giant, on Truly’s first day of kindergarten.
“It was a word I’d heard before in Brenda Dyerson’s fairy stories, wherein magic stalks grew out of regular dried beans, ordinary geese laid jewel-encrusted eggs, and enchanted harps sung of their own accord,” Truly says of her 5-year-old self. “To me, it was a word that swirled with extraordinary promises of castle spires and treasure chests. That’s not how the teacher said it, though. She spat the word through the front of her teeth, as if she were expelling used toothpaste.”
Like most fairy tales, this one has some dark undertones. Truly ends up using what she learns from Tabitha’s spells to help two of Aberdeen’s terminal patients end their lives. The fact that both of these people were cruel and unkind to her leaves a reader a bit squirmy.
It’s as if Baker were trying to give Truly revenge without tainting her heroine status, and the result is emotionally clunky.
There are a few other niggling problems: A plotline that turns Truly into a selfless Cinderella continues on for longer than common sense would warrant, and her foster sister never quite gets her due as a character.
But if the ending of “The Little Giant of Aberdeen County” doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its early pages, that’s because those first chapters are so enchanting. Baker has crafted a book big enough to hold her title character, and few readers would be churlish enough to begrudge Truly a happily-ever-after.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.