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2 Beaverton Literature- A to Z

The Little Friend


The Little Friend Cover



Reading Group Guide

1. The prologue offers glimpses of the household before Robins body is discovered. What do the descriptions of Charlotte, Edie, the great-aunts, and Ida Rhew show about the individual characters and the family dynamics? Do the reactions of Charlotte and Edie to the tragedy simply reinforce an established pattern or does a more profound change occur? How do their stories about Robin—their “exquisite delineation of his character—painstakingly ornamented over a number of years” [p. 19]—differ from their embellished and often improvised memories of life at Tribulation and other family stories?

2. Tartt writes “From the time she was old enough to talk, Harriet had been a slightly distressing presence in the Cleve household. . . . Harriet was not disobedient, exactly, or unruly, but she was haughty and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came in contact” [pp. 27-28]. Does Harriett live up to this description? Does she change over the course of the novel?

3. “She did not care for childrens books in which the children grew up, as what ‘growing up entailed (in life as in books) was a swift and inexplicable dwindling of character” [p. 157]. How do the adventure stories Harriet prefers inform her notions of what “growing up” entails? What does her choice of books reveal about her perceptions of how the world works and the things she will need to survive? Does she have a greater understanding of the adult world than most children her age?

4. The elderly Cleve sisters all have clear places in the familys self-portrait. Edie, for example, “was both field marshal and autocrat, the person of greatest power in the family and the person most likely to act” [p. 28]. Do the other sisters fall as easily into general characterizations? Are Charlotte, Allison, and Harriet contemporary versions of the older generation? How do Tartts descriptions of minor characters like Mrs. Fountain [pp. 33-35] and Helys mother [pp. 212-14] help to bring the central female figures into sharper focus?

5. “Because her father was so quarrelsome and disruptive, and so dissatisfied with everything, it seemed right to Harriet that he did not live at home” [p. 68]. Why does Harriet see her father in such a stark, uncompromising way? What insight does this offer into Harriets approach to her emotions and her experiences? Are there incidents in the novel that present a different, more sympathetic view of Dix?

6. Harriet pieces together her case against Danny Ratliff from conversations with Pemberton Hull [pp. 105-108] and Ida Rhew [pp. 143-50], information shes gleaned from local newspapers, and “random little scraps shed picked up here and there over the years” [p. 119]. Does the evidence Harriet collects provide convincing proof of Dannys guilt? What factors contribute to Harriets confidence that she has solved the mystery of Robins death? What makes Harriet decide to track down Robins killer? Does Harriet understand the emotions that trigger her need to find Robins killer? Why is she so sure that Danny is guilty of the crime? How valid is her reasoning and where does it fall apart?

7. How do the physical settings help to establish the social landscape of the novel? Why does Tartt call Tribulation an “extinct colossus” [p. 43], for example? What is the significance of the mounting chaos and disarray in Harriets own home? What does the new housing development, Oak Lawn Estates [pp. 165-66], represent?

8. The account of Harriet and Helys attempt to steal a poisonous snake from Eugenes apartment and their confrontation with the Ratliff brothers [pp. 300-330] is almost unbearably frightening and intense. What devices does Tartt use to build and sustain the suspense?

9. A collection of misfits, fanatics, and criminals, the Ratliff family seems to embody Edies view of the white underclass: “The poor white has nothing to blame for his station but his own character. Well, of course, that wont do. That would mean having to assume some responsibility for his own laziness and sorry behavior” [p. 146]. Do the portraits of the Ratliff brothers reinforce or belie Edies assumptions? What redeeming characteristics do Danny and Eugene have and how does Tartt make them apparent? Why has Tartt included Curtis in the family? How does his presence add to our understanding of the family?

10. A strong matriarch presides over both Harriets family and the Ratliffs. What qualities do Edie and Gum have in common? How does each exercise her power? To what extent are their approaches to life defined by their social status and personal experiences? Does Gums own life, for example, justify “the main lesson she had drilled into her grandsons: not to expect much from the world” [p. 357]? In what ways do the lessons Edie imposes, either explicitly or implicitly, reflect her own strengths and weaknesses? What comparisons can be drawn between Danny and Harriets families and, in particular, between Danny and Harriet themselves?

11. Why does Ida Rhew play such a critical role

in Harriets life? How does Idas position in the household illuminate the shortcomings not only of Charlotte, but of the other adults in Harriets life? How do the familys reaction to her departure and Idas response to being fired [pp. 357-67] undermine Harriets vision of her world? In what ways do the emotions she experiences reflect both her perspective as a child and her emerging awareness and acceptance of adult uncertainties and moral ambiguities?

12. What do you make of the end of the novel? Hely thinks, “The mission was accomplished, the battle won; somehow—incredibly—she had done exactly what she said she would, and got away with the whole thing” [p. 624]. Harriet decides “Shed learned things she never knew, things she had no idea of knowing, and yet in a strange way it was the hidden message of Captain Scott, the part of the story shes never seen until now: that victory and collapse were sometimes the same thing” [p. 544]. What do you think of these two very different assessments? How do they reflect the natures of the two characters? Does it matter that Robins murder remains unsolved or do you accept, as Libby says, that “the world is full of things we dont understand” [p. 140]?

13. The Little Friend explores the relationships between blacks and whites in Alexandria from several perspectives. The blatant racism of the Ratliffs is clearly shown in such incidents as the shooting at the river [p. 142]. In which ways does Harriets family also exhibit a deep-seated, if more subtle, strain of racial prejudice? Is Harriets shocked reaction to Idas story about the church burning [pp. 146-47] a sign of her naiveté or does it reveal a sense of morality that distinguishes her (and by extension, her peers) from past generations?

14. The novel begins with stretches of long, languorous prose but later the pace quickens. What techniques does Tartt use to achieve this?

15. The term “Southern Gothic” is often used to describe writing set in the American South, from Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers tales of families shaped by tragedy, insanity, and alcoholism to Anne Rices Vampire Chronicles. Are there elements in The Little Friend that can be described as Southern Gothic and, if so, what are they? Were you reminded of other literary styles or authors while reading the book?

16. The novels epigraphs come from St. Thomas Aquinas and Harry Houdini. Why is this rather odd coupling of a religious scholar and saint and a magician appropriate to the story Tartt tells? What lesson is implicit in both quotations? Has Harriet gained “the slenderest knowledge of the highest things” by the novels end?

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Kebi, January 19, 2015 (view all comments by Kebi)
After reading The Goldfinch last year (and being blown away by Tartt's storytelling and writing brilliance - again - I decided to go back and re-read The Little Friend, which I read originally when it first came out. It was memorable then, though I'd forgotten much (10 years!). It seemed even richer than I remembered. What I loved: 1) her beautiful and affecting prose, 2) her breathtaking storytelling that seized me and didn't let go until the end, and 3) her ability to enter "foreign" worlds (in this case, a southern childhood) and inhabit them like a native, and to take you there so you felt like a native too. Someone mentioned Lord of the Flies in a review of this novel, and the reference is apt (though Lord of the Flies left me far more depressed). These are children, but no less purposeful and intense about their lives than the most intense adult. The book was full of jaw dropping scenes, heartbreaking ones, funny ones, and terrifying ones, as well as simply being full of beauty. I really loved this book. (An aside: I loved The Goldfinch too, but The Secret History - not so much. I couldn't get into it but maybe I'll try again one of these days.)

I strongly recommend The Little Friend to fans of The Goldfinch and to everyone who appreciates genius literary fiction.
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MargPDX, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by MargPDX)
I loved this book. I just re-read it to lead a discussion for my book club. The characters snap and the dark humor is a delight.
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Deborah Fochler, August 19, 2007 (view all comments by Deborah Fochler)
If you want a book to read fast - this is not the one for you. I am an avid reader and had to stop and drag out a dictionary at least twice. Ms. Tartt loves big words and lots of them. But this story is worth the effort. It is not what I expected at the beginning but still delves into the psyche of children and adults alike. It is emotional, scary and at times extremely disturbing and yet at moments you feel the "love" of this family and their hurt and pain and search for the revelations of all the secrets - the need to know what happened to a loved one. And that is the saving grace of this novel - the love of family.
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Product Details

Tartt, Donna
Tartt, Donna
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage Contemporaries
Publication Date:
October 28, 2003
Grade Level:
8 x 5.13 x 1.12 in 1 lb

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Mystery » A to Z

The Little Friend Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$7.50 In Stock
Product details 640 pages Vintage - English 9781400031696 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Tartt is able to quietly transform the book from a patient study of a family's disassembly and despair to a gut-thumping story of a little girl seeking a measure of understanding and well-deserved revenge....Though absent of the twisted sexual tension of East Coast blue bloods that so thoroughly inhabited The Secret History, Tartt's first novel, The Little Friend is a more focused read, a deeper exploration of the dark manner in which the past never leaves us alone."
"Review" by , "A far more emotionally resonant novel than its predecessor....[Ms. Tartt] makes palpable the losses that the family has sustained over the years."
"Review" by , "In this review, I can tell you that The Little Friend — her second novel, arriving 10 years after The Secret History — is overlong, its writing occasionally precious and its resolution murky; and I can also praise the book's vital characters, its supple conjuring of mood and place, and its dry, dark humor. But I can't explain how it is that this is a novel you sink into, or how Tartt casts her weird spell. I suspect, however, that it has nothing to do with acquired technique or any understanding of real life; no doubt she picked up the knack during a lifetime of obsessive and probably unhealthy reading. Wherever she got it, she sure knows how to write the sort of book that people who want to get lost in a book get lost in."
"Review" by , "[L]anguidly atmospheric....[B]y the time you get to page 543, you're so engrossed in just about everything but the murder that you no longer care who dunnit....[I]t takes you somewhere worth going."
"Review" by , "The Little Friend is a terrific story....By now it should be obvious what Tartt's been up to since The Secret History came out: she's been slaving away on this extraordinary book."
"Review" by , "[D]estined to become a special kind of classic — a book that precocious young readers pluck from their parents' shelves and devour with surreptitious eagerness..."
"Review" by , "[V]ery long, very overheated, yet absorbing....Despite an overload of staggered false climaxes, it's all quite irrationally entertaining....Tartt appears to have struck gold once again."
"Review" by , "[A] sprawling story of vengeance...told in a rich, controlled voice that can come only from long effort....[A] grownup book that captures the dark, Lord of the Flies side of childhood and classic children's literature."
"Review" by , "[W]ell worth the long wait....[A]n exceptionally suspenseful, flawlessly written story fairly teeming with outsize characters and roiling emotion."
"Review" by , "[C]onfirms [Tartt's] talent as a superb storyteller, sophisticated observer of human nature and keen appraiser of ethics and morality....The Little Friend flowers with emotional insight, a gift for comedy and a sure sense of pacing."
"Review" by , "Because of Tartt's mastery of suspense, this book will grip most readers all the way through to its bitter end....Although this is a large novel, Tartt has created a claustrophobic world in which there is little possibility of freedom for any character."
"Review" by , "Breathtaking....A sublime tale rich in religious overtones, moral ambiguities, and violent, poetic acts....From its darkly enticing opening, we are held spellbound."
"Review" by , "Readers are easily swept up....At times humorous, at times heartbreaking, The Little Friend is most surprising when it is edge-of-your-seat scary."
"Review" by , "[B]y the time you get to page 543, you're so engrossed in just about everything but the murder that you no longer care who dunnit. And, by that point, you suspect that Tartt doesn't care, either....[The Littel Friend] takes the shape of a murder mystery, but it's not really about a death at all. It's about a way of life....The fact that The Littel Friend turns out to be quite different from the thriller that the reader...may have expected is a serious flaw. And yet as a novel of Southern manners it succeeds remarkably well....The Little Friend doesn't get where it was headed..., but there's no question that it takes you somewhere worth going."
"Synopsis" by , A grandly ambitious and riveting novel of childhood, innocence and evil.
"Synopsis" by , The hugely anticipated new novel by the author of The Secret History. Even more transfixingly suspenseful than its predecessor, this is a dark work of lost childhood, rich in moral paradox, as a 12-year-old Mississippi girl sets out to find her brother's murderer.
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