A big-hearted heroine
In Tiffany Baker's debut novel, a giantess finds her place
On a recent call to her Marin County home, just north of San Francisco, Tiffany Baker seems unruffled, despite the fact that her babysitter hasn't shown up to corral her three young children, who at present can be heard shrieking through the halls. An occasional squeal punctuates our ensuing conversation, but Baker maintains her composure and focus—and her sense of humor. Focus is something that the author obviously has in spades, having written her first novel while tending to one baby and pregnant with another. "I've always written, ever since I was little," she says.
In addition to three children, ages six, five and two, Baker has also given birth to a debut novel that's already generating a big buzz. With The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, Baker introduces readers to Truly Plaice, an unconventional heroine, a giantess whose monstrous proportions make her both an outcast and a curiosity in her small, upstate New York town. "I know that it's a very odd book," Baker concedes. But, we believe, one that will have considerable appeal.
Set against the bleak backdrop of a dying town, Truly's story begins at birth, with an epic scene reminiscent of something out of Isabel Allende. Thereafter, the novel unfolds at a quieter pace. After the death of her mother, who died in childbirth presumably because of Truly's enormous size, Truly plods through a hardscrabble existence with her tormented father and pretty, popular sister, Serena Jane. Her father also dies prematurely, and Truly, who continues to grow at an alarming rate due an untreated pituitary problem, is sent to live with the Dyersons, a luckless farming family trying and failing to scratch out a living from barren land and a series of decrepit race horses. Serena Jane, however, goes on to live a life of privilege and relative happiness—until, that is, she crosses paths with the cruel Bob Bob Morgan, the youngest in a line of Robert Morgans, Aberdeen's family doctors for generations. This encounter changes the course of Serena Jane's life and ends her plans to escape her hometown and become a Hollywood starlet.
Asked about the creation of a character as peculiar as Truly, Baker says, "I'm very much a voice writer. I just got Truly's voice in my head, for better or for worse, because it didn't leave for years after!" She goes on to say that additional inspiration arrived in another form. "I got the image of this woman shrinking," she explains, which is what begins to happen to Truly toward the novel's end.
Baker was also intrigued by the idea of a larger-than-life character that defies definition. "She's just too big for her life, but no one can see her. She is so big and so out of the ordinary, but it makes her invisible. I became fascinated by that contrast," says Baker. She believes there are many people in society we willingly choose not to see, like the crazy person on the bus. "It's so fun to give a person a voice who doesn't have one," she says. The townspeople do, however, begin to take notice when Truly undergoes both an outward and inward transformation. And when Truly begins to grow out of her assigned role in society (or, in an ironic twist, "shrink" out of it), it makes some of those people very uncomfortable. As her name not so subtly infers, Truly Plaice does at last find her true place.
Though it would be accurate to subtitle the book, "The Incredible Shrinking Woman," Little Giant is less freak show than fable. Baker does turn her attention to the daily travails of her characters, but the story, which strikes a universal tone and has a folkloric feel, is not bound by city limits. Baker cites her Ukrainian background as one of the reasons folklore has always fascinated her. And she credits her boarding school experience back East for her interest in New England as a setting. It was also at her Rhode Island prep school that Baker fell in love with the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which clearly informs her work. Baker, who has a doctorate in Victorian literature, says, "I've described [Little Giant] as kind of New England Gothic folklore." She muses, "I love that kind of fairytale, folktale feeling because maybe I never really grew up."
Though Truly takes up the most space, Baker also populates her novel with a cast of minor characters who add color and their own distinctive voices to the narrative. As the story progresses, Truly leaves the Dyerson farm and her adopted sister Amelia, herself an outcast, to take care of Serena Jane's husband and son after Serena Jane abandons them. It is in the Morgan family home where Truly discovers family secrets that will change her life forever. Thus emerges the parallel story of Tabitha Dyerson, one of the novel's most interesting threads. Tabitha, a rumored witch and healer, left behind a mysterious "shadow book," which has eluded generations of Dyerson men. It takes Truly to unravel this mystery, and it is in doing so that she finds she has the power not only to heal others, but also herself.
In the interest of not giving away too much, let's just say that the most delightful aspect of the novel is the story of Tabitha's quilt, an object that itself constitutes a character.
It comes as no surprise that Baker cites Allende, John Irving and Anne Tyler as influences. And, like Truly with her herbal remedies, Baker has concocted a pleasing brew of the three: the offbeat Irving with his penchant for eccentric characters, the magical quality of Allende and Tyler's plainspoken insightfulness into relationships of every stripe.
Baker is currently at work on her second novel, in which she returns to New England, this time to a salt farm. She won't divulge too much, but does say that it is about three women, two of them sisters, who are all involved with the same man. If Little Giant is any indication, we can expect Baker's next book to bear the mark of her natural storytelling and astute observations on human nature.
Baker brings a wisdom and compassion to this timeless portrait of small-town life, a place where the boundŸary between reality and fairy tale is but a blur and happy endings are possible. "I love a happy ending," says Baker unapologetically. "That's the whole point in reading, because you don't always get that in life." In Little Giant, Baker rewards the reader with one, and it's all the sweeter because of the long, hard road it takes Truly to get there.
Katherine Wyrick is a writer in Little Rock.
Author photo by Lauren Drever.