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The Truth Can Set You Free

A Response to Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend

I was furious. I knew I was right. People could be so pig-headed when they didn’t want to see the truth. Every time I tried to remind them of what was going on, they would smile and disregard me. In frustration I stormed through the office doors, determined to set the matter straight. As I waited for the elevator, I heard myself think, "Nobody listens to me." With a shock I recognized those words.

Someone I had just met had said those same words and unwittingly set in motion events which she would bitterly regret. While our situations were very different, her sense of being slighted mirrored my own; I needed to heed her story.

My new friend, Harriet Cleve Dufresne, is Donna Tartt’s 12-year-old going on 30 heroine in The Little Friend (2002). Reminiscent of Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird, Harriet’s story is a classic southern tale, weaving through the past, picking up those smouldering threads of vanquished splendour and implacable racism. Tartt is a storyteller in the tradition of William Faulkner and Carson McCullers, as she casually tells her tale, mesmerizing us with haunting imagery, finely-drawn characters and just the right amount of comic humanity. The Little Friend is also a superb coming of age story, holding in perfect tension the innocence of childhood with the self-knowledge of becoming adult.

Harriet has lived her whole life in the shadow of the unsolved murder of her 9-year-old brother Robin 12 years earlier, when Harriet was just a baby. All her life Harriet heard stories of Robin and the days when the family fortunes had been better. Harriet was practically raised by her storytelling grandmother and great-aunts, and these fading southern belles kept the past alive, or least certain aspects of it. Harriet, being cursed or blessed with a keen intellect, found herself drawn to what they didn’t tell. As a child she loved dinosaurs and, when older, archeology. She was fascinated with how scientists could build a story from simple bones ("how do they know the brontosaurus was green?"). She was also haunted by her dead brother; thoughts about him would comfort her during the nights she couldn’t sleep, as she gazed out over the neighbourhood. Her favourite books were Captain Scott’s Last Expedition and Harry Houdini’s Young Magician. One of her favourite games was re-enacting Christ’s last supper with the neighbourhood boys, always underneath her backyard tree where Robin had been found hanging. Then, during the summer after her 12th birthday, Harriet’s cat died. Originally it had been Robin’s cat but it had been adopted mainly by her sister Allison, Harriet being more fond of her books. Her grandmother took the ailing cat to the vet and ended up bringing it back for a funeral. Harriet’s deep-seated hunger for truth compelled her to touch the dead cat. There is a finality in a dead body, absence speaking much louder than memory. That night Harriet dreamt about Houdini submerged in a black suitcase and woke up convinced she needed to find her brother’s murderer. And so her summer odyssey began; there was no turning back.

What started out as a Treasure Island adventure gradually turned sinister. Harriet enlisted the help of her best friend Hely. As they begin doing research -- asking painful questions of people who’d rather not remember -- Harriet and Hely uncover threads of other, larger stories. Why did the beloved maid Ida Rhew get paid so little? What happened years ago when the local black Baptist church burned down? Why did the family have to leave their ancestral mansion? Why was Harriet’s mother Charlotte so kind to the hapless Odum children, thoughtlessly giving away Harriet’s prized childhood toys? And what was going on at the ominous pool hall when Danny Ratliff ran out and locked eyes with Harriet one eerie summer night?

Standing firmly in the southern storytelling tradition, Tartt weaves these different threads together into a narrative tapestry adorned with riveting imagery. The white sheets flapping on the clothes line the afternoon that Robin died; the blackbird that dies as Harriet tries to release it from a puddle of tar; Robin’s blackbird costume that keeps reappearing in the story; Harriet holding her breath at the bottom of the pool; the snakes squirming loose in the darkened living room.

As Harriet learns more, she starts to draw conclusions, but like her family, she doesn’t see the whole picture. Like everyone in the story, she is blinded by her prejudices and misinterprets what she sees. Frustrated that no one is taking her sleuthing seriously, she sulks about her supper and inadvertently gets Ida Rhew, who was like a mother to her, fired. Ida is frustrated at Charlotte’s misplaced compassion on the "white trash" children and idly drops a name that fuels Harriet’s fevered imagination. Blinded by her single-minded devotion, the lonely Harriet fails to recognize a possible friend in one of these children, precocious LaSharon Odum.

Soon Harriet is in over her head. She struggles with all she’s discovered, both about her family and her small Southern town, like the trapped blackbird she tries to save. With the realization that her help actually hastened the death she was trying to prevent, Harriet steps over the threshold, leaving her childhood behind. "Death seeking understanding" is what drives her on, and ultimately it leads her to face her own actions. But enlightenment alone often leads to self-loathing. It is with the small budding of compassion in Harriet, as she finally understands who the little friend was, that we feel hope for her. She starts out seeking truth and justice. What she discovers is that the Other is like her, and with that she has the key to begin a new story.

Of course The Little Friend is a darker story than To Kill a Mockingbird, leaning more towards the Faulkner tradition. Harriet brushes against true evil, not only in others but in herself. The resolution is open-ended, not warm memory looking back, but naked self-awareness about to begin anew. There is a more critical understanding of how racism runs both ways. This book reflects how North Americans have come of age since the sixties. Not to suggest that Harper Lee’s story was naive, but rather, that Donna Tartt has cast the same questions into our time, with our post-modern understanding.

Although the book’s resolution feels satisfying, it challenges the reader to answer why that is so. The worldview we live in, and how we understand meaning, plays a large part in how we interact with culture, with art. So for me, Harriet’s shift from revenge, even in its tentativeness, suggests nothing short of a miracle. This is of course my bias, but I don’t think it’s entirely subjective. In a culture that has understandably grown inured to any meaningful reflection on following Christ, I write the following with some hesitation.

Although this story isn’t overtly Christian, Tartt generously sprinkles it with allusions to scripture and Christ’s compassion. These references are ironic, in the self-satisfied grandmother not recognizing ongoing racism, or Harriet’s unconscious mimicking of God’s suffering in her passion plays mirroring the suffering of her own family. But a deeper irony suggests itself in the narrative. Perhaps God is much more creative and resilient than either the characters -- or the readers -- imagine. This God, who in spite of our recalcitrant natures continues to seek ways to break through to us, is reflected in both Harriet’s dogged, misguided persistence and her growing sense of compassion. It flickers in Danny Ratliff’s struggle between love and self-preservation, and in his desire to be a free man. God’s long-suffering spirit seems to shine through the narrative, reminding us that God identified with us ambiguous creatures to the point of taking on our nature, complete with limitations. The friend of sinners.

Like any good literature, this story can work its way into our lives in unexpected ways. Remembering Harriet’s impulsiveness kept me from turning a work misunderstanding into a blame game. More deeply, Harriet’s hard won understanding of herself encourages me towards deeper honesty. Donna Tartt’s creativity helps deepen my own roots in the tradition of God becoming human in Christ. Her delicious irony inspires me to reflect on how the Christian tradition is much more nuanced than our media-saturated understanding of the Christian Right leads us to believe. The story of Christ continues to upset the status quo and finds remarkable ways to break through to broken people, which is all of us, calling us to follow the compassion that Jesus lived. Harriet’s discovery is the remarkable surprise that could be characterized as God’s Spirit in the world -- we are freed to step out from under family history, mistakes and shame and be made new.

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