Throughout much of Donna Tartt's 2002 book, The Little Friend, I kept wondering, where is she going with this? Is this a murder mystery? A coming of age tale? A childhood adventure a la Scout/Jem/Dill of To Kill a Mockingbird? And if it is, where and who is their Boo Radley?
In the end, it seemed to me that it was all of those things and none of them. In truth, the writer didn't really care so much about the death of nine-year-old Robin Cleve Dufresnes and how his body came to be hanging from a tree in the family's yard in the river town of Alexandria, Mississippi. The mystery of the death and who was responsible were never explained, but, by focusing on that, Tartt was really exploring relationships, how the death affected those left behind, and the way of life of those people.
We visit Alexandria twelve years after the death. Harriet Dufresnes, the youngest member of the family, was just a baby when her brother died. Now she is twelve years old and obsessed with finding out what happened to him and who was responsible. Moreover, she wants retribution for that tragic death and what it did to her family.
What it did to the family was to essentially destroy it. The mother now lives in a tranquilized fog and seems barely aware of her two remaining children. The father has moved out and is living in Nashville with his mistress and only sees the family on holidays. Harriet's older sister, the beautiful Allison, who was four years old when Robin died, seems almost as somnambulant as her mother.
Harriet is not beautiful but she is smart and she is ferociously independent and determined to solve the mystery that haunts her family. In this endeavor, she is aided by her loyal friend, an eleven-year-old boy named Hely.
The only thing holding the Dufresnes family together and providing stability and structure to their lives is their housekeeper, Ida. Harriet loves her and depends on her as the rock in her life, but then Ida leaves. Was she fired by the mother or was it her own choice? It's not entirely clear. What is clear is that Harriet and Allison are devastated.
Meanwhile, Harriet's murder investigation has come to focus on Danny Ratliff, who is from a "white-trash" family of orphaned boys who were reared by their backwoods grandmother. Danny was a classmate and friend of Robin's, but apparently he once "confessed" to his murder as an act of childhood braggadocio. Harriet pursues him implacably and plans her revenge. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong.
Tartt seems to contrast the orphaned Ratliffs being raised by their grandmother in poverty-stricken circumstances with the essentially abandoned Dufresnes girls who are reared mostly by their formidable grandmother, Edie, as a part of the faded aristocracy, still hanging on to those pretensions with a stranglehold on the past.
As William Faulkner wrote, "The past is not dead. It's not even past." Nowhere is that more true than in Tartt's Alexandria, Mississippi.
So we see Alexandria as a place of ingrained but unconscious racism. It is so much a part of these people's lives, like the humid air they breathe, they are simply unaware of it. Moreover, there is the hostility between the "white-trash" country people and the "aristocratic" town people, in spite of the fact that not that much separates them economically. In truth, they are all poor, even though the country people are poorer and the town people make themselves feel better by feeling superior to them.
Tartt overwhelms us with detail in this meandering narrative and often it all seems somewhat haphazard, but her point seemed to be that both the Dufresnes children and the Ratliff children were in their own way victims. They were shaped by circumstances beyond their control.
Maybe this book was shaped by circumstances as well. I'm not sure it ended up exactly where Tartt had originally planned, but it was a trip well worth making.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars