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Original Essays



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Original Essays

When Size Is in Your Imagination

by Tiffany Baker
  1. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County
    $4.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "It's got all the earmarks of a hit....It'll be a shame if this doesn't race up the bestseller lists." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "An alluring plot...lush voice....Baker has a good sense of the dark comedy of melodrama." The Washington Post

    "The Little Giant of Aberdeen County grabs you from its astonishing beginning to its riveting conclusion....This dark-yet-rollicking debut is a must-read." Sara Gruen, bestselling author of Water for Elephants

I wrote a novel about a woman born with gigantism in a small town in upstate New York. Let me state for the record that I am neither a giant myself nor is anyone in my family. I did do some research on the disorder of gigantism, but I don't have first-hand, personal experience with the condition. My heroine, Truly, simply arrived in my imagination one day and settled in for a good, long stay like a garrulous hen on an egg. What if, I wondered, a really big woman was born into a very small town? What kind of fall-out would there be?

Plenty, it turns out, and not just the fictional kind, either. "How big is Truly, anyway?" readers have begun asking me. "You don't say in the book."

I'm hesitant to answer this. First of all, medically speaking, there's no actual, clinical number that qualifies a patient as a giant. Generally, I believe, the term refers to anyone two standard deviations above the norm for height, but that's not the point.

The fact is, Truly has no idea what her measurements are for much of the novel. In the first part of the story she doesn't go to the doctor, and when Robert Morgan, her nefarious brother-in-law/physician, finally does examine her, she asks him not to tell her what she weighs or how tall she is. It's not until she reads her medical files toward the end of the novel that she finally gets that data.

As it turns out, this state of affairs really bugs some folks, and I think that is the point. Imagine how frustrating it would be to live without any of the usual, basic markers. Imagine being so large that no one could possibly overlook you, and yet everyone does. Imagine being the biggest person in the smallest town, but still snubbed every day. Imagine only being able to see broken pieces of yourself in the frame of a hallway mirror or a shop window. Picture trying to buy clothes, or take a seat on a bus, or fit behind a desk at a school that's clearly not designed for the kind of soul you are.

Actually, I think a lot of American women struggle with more minor forms of this sort of body dysmorphia, where we can't quite reconcile our insides with our outsides. Maybe most of us. I mean, really, if you're female, how many times have you tried on bathing suits under a cascade of god-awful fluorescent lighting, turned around and gotten a glimpse of your winter-white thighs in the mirror that, I swear, adds 10 pounds, and wanted to rip the damn thing off the wall? How many diets have you been on? How many different sizes of jeans are scattered in your closet?

Truly is an extreme version of what happens when society ignores a person's voice and only gives precedence to the flesh. And I wanted the reader to feel the effects of that. In the beginning of the novel, during her childhood, Truly is a knowing innocent. She recognizes that her physicality is problematic, but has no way of gauging why or how. Later in the story, when Robert Morgan finally gets his bony hands on her, she knows enough to realize that she doesn't want to be defined by his narrow-minded parameters of the body.

It is only when Truly discovers the record of another disembodied female voice (Tabitha's quilt) that she begins the process of reconciling her inner life with her outer form. Again, what she has to do to make that union complete is another, very extreme example of the alienation I think many of us experience from the basic cycle of life and death in contemporary Western culture. When Truly gives Tabitha's "remedies" to the doctor and Priscilla, she finds out that life and death are inexorably connected, that the soul and body do, in fact, depend on each other, and that the past is always stitched here in the present, like the patterns on Tabitha's quilt.

If Truly has the trappings of a fairy-tale character about her, that isn't accidental, either. For one thing, fairy tales are tremendous fun to read. They are quaintly familiar and strangely horrifying at the same time. They contain the most familiar archetypes (the Beauty, the Witch, the Prince) in the most unlikely disguises, and they very often have happy endings, but only after a journey of transformation is completed. And lastly, fairy tales aren't so much about the characters in them as they are about people telling and re-telling them in the first place. Deep down in our bones, I suspect, we all long for that missing bite of magic that will reveal our inner swans, summon up Prince Charming, and vanquish the nasty witch.

On my worst writing days, the days when I write the same sentence 10 different ways and then just delete it, the days when I end up with fewer pages than I started with, or realize I'm going to have to rework the first third of a novel, I sometimes wonder why I bother writing fiction at all. I mean, what's the point of sweating over a bunch of imaginary people in imaginary places, to whom unreal things happen? It would be so much easier just to report something, I find myself thinking. I could write a narrative about the history of paperclips, or give an overview of paper airplanes! I could do a memoir!

But then I get the wisp of a voice like Truly's floating through my head, and the volume grows and grows, and I'm off. Once upon a time. One day. There once was a girl who. A very large girl in a small town. A cruel brother-in-law. A magic potion. Before I know it, I'm busy turning ducklings to swans, banishing ogres, and generally setting the world to right. I hope you enjoy the tale of Truly, a woman cursed by her own size; and in reading it, I hope you find all the comfort of the best-told fables, where truth is stranger than fiction, we can be our own heroes, and, most of all, we come away knowing that we are not alone in the world, that indeed our voices do carry far and wide to places we never could have imagined. Bon Vivant!

÷ ÷ ÷

Tiffany Baker lives in Tiburon, California, with her husband and three children. This is her first novel. spacer

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