buddy read: the little friend

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Vintage, 624 pp.
Published October 22, 2002

Bestselling author Donna Tartt returns with a grandly ambitious and utterly riveting novel of childhood, innocence and evil.

The setting is Alexandria, Mississippi, where one Mother’s Day a little boy named Robin Cleve Dufresnes was found hanging from a tree in his parents’ yard. Twelve years later Robin’s murder is still unsolved and his family remains devastated. So it is that Robin’s sister Harriet - unnervingly bright, insufferably determined, and unduly influenced by the fiction of Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson--sets out to unmask his killer. Aided only by her worshipful friend Hely, Harriet crosses her town’s rigid lines of race and caste and burrows deep into her family’s history of loss.

Several years ago I read and enjoyed The Secret History. Not long after finishing it I got Donna Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend, and allowed it to languish unread ever since. Thankfully Evelina of AvalinahsBooks invited me to do a buddy read and this was one of the books our TBRs had in common! I say thankfully not only because Evelina was one of the first to welcome me into the book blogging community and I consider her one of my dearest friends in the community, but also because...this was kind of a difficult book to finish. While it provided a lot of good discussion topics for our Twitter messages, the narrative ambled around with little momentum for much of the 600+ pages. Tartt is a strong writer with genuine talent for wordcraft and characters, but the plot here left something to be desired. Even so, there's still plenty to discuss about The Little Friend and you can read my answers to Evelina's questions down below! Once you're done, don't forget to read Evelina's answers to my questions right here too!

Let's start easy: give me your general impressions of the book. Yay or nay? Why?

To be honest, I'm conflicted! This book was easily 200-300 pages longer than the plot itself demanded, which made finishing it a little difficult. Tartt does such a good job capturing all the intricacies of race, class, and gender in 1970's Mississippi, though, that it's difficult to criticize The Little Friend from a character perspective. My dissatisfaction is really rooted in the expectation that she was writing a murder mystery: what happened to a young (white) boy found hanging in his yard? Once Tartt started meandering away from that central question my attention waned, even if she was still writing in top form. Even though my own experience was a little disappointing, I would still recommend this book to fans of literary fiction and readers who enjoy books that explore the effects of racism and classism.

Throughout the novel, Tartt plays a lot with dangerous imagery: a child hanging off a noose, a child aiming a rifle. Would you say Tartt uses these shocking images as literary devices to give a certain vibe to the book? And did you like this vibe?

Yes, I would. The image of Robin Dufresnes hanging from a tree limb conjures a very distinct, very evocative parallel to the lynching of African-Americans. Consequences stemming from that kind of unmitigated, indiscriminate racial hatred echo throughout other parts of the story, like Ida's story about the tragedy at the church and how Aunt Edie reacted to the original news. The way Harriet plays with her father's rifle foreshadows her attitude throughout the search for her brother's killer: reckless, indiscriminate, and naive. I think the association of children with the threat or result of violence serves to remind the reader that, no matter how Harriet and her friend Hely may act like their 'investigation' is a game, their actions can have real consequences in the adult world. It builds an ominous tone that ratchets up in each section of the book right up to the final confrontation between two characters. Personally, I enjoyed the atmosphere Tartt built. I thought it was important that the children weren't magically shielded from harm; believing they were untouchable would have made for a very boring read!

This book discusses many societal issues, and racism is one of them. Tell us more about how Tartt slowly builds the overall image of the issue here and what you thought about it.

As I mentioned above, it starts with the charged image of a hanging, even though the victim is a middle-class white boy. Our first real introduction to the Ratliffs is when two of the brothers casually shoot at a group of black men, women, and children along a riverbank. Tartt also leaves the time period fairly vague, only dropping a few hints throughout the novel about when these events are taking place. For a good portion of it you and I both thought it was set in the 1950's—except it's actually the late 1970's! In a way this made the extreme degree of separation between whites and blacks feel...not acceptable, but at least expected. The way she plays with expectations like that has strong applications to the present, as America (and other countries, too) grapple with the unnerving endurance of racism.

Violent episodes like the Ratliff brothers shooting were just the most extreme examples in the book. She also summons the casual racist attitudes of the upper-class through Harriet's mother and aunts, the bitter attitude of poor whites towards blacks of any socioeconomic class, the uninformed prejudice of children, and the institutionalized racism present in many Southern communities at the time. Through a combination of actions, words, and thoughts she demonstrates just how embedded this mindset was well after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. By so meticulously illustrating the extent of the problem, Tartt makes it impossible for a modern reader to deny that it still exists today.

How long did the author keep you in the dark about what's going to happen? Did you have theories? Do you still have them, after finishing the book?

It was only in the last 50 pages or so that I realized the ending I expected wouldn't materialize. I certainly didn't predict how Harriet's investigation would end, nor how expansive its effects would become! I do have a couple of suspicions regarding some of the big unanswered questions, but they don't have rock solid support in the text. SPOILER Since it was revealed that Danny didn't kill Robin, I'm leery of their fellow classmate and Hely's older brother, Pem. Once he learns about Harriet's investigation he starts spending a lot of time with her older sister, seemingly unprompted. When he can't get a hold of her and Harriet lies about her not being home later in the book, he seems more upset than normal over what's presented as a summer flirtation. He may have been concerned that Allison remembered something from the day he died. That Tartt ended the book with a conversation between Hely and Pem, rather than focusing on Harriet and her family, is also odd. While there's little to no proof that Pem was involved in his friend's death, his behavior goes unnoticed and unexamined for enough of the book to be suspicious. END SPOILER

My edition of the book featured a serpent on the cover, and there is so much that touches on the serpent symbolism in the book. Would you say that Harriet was the serpent for Danny, coaxing him into some really bad decisions? Or was Danny the serpent to Harriet, taking away her childish innocence and making her into somewhat of an angel of punishment? What would you make of this symbolism?

(Your book cover sounds much cooler than mine! I only had a partial picture of a baby doll, which makes much less sense.) I actually think that they each facilitated the temptation of a serpent they held in common: the past. Harriet's family and home were torn apart by her brother's death when she was too little to remember. Many of Danny's few happy memories center around his childhood friendship with Robin; one could argue that losing that relationship helped entomb Danny in a toxic home. The past has influenced their mindsets and ways of thinking so heavily that after their fates intertwine the rest of the novel reads like a tragedy of errors. Time and again Harriet and Danny make false assumptions about one another that only lead each of them farther from the truth (in her case) and from freedom (in his).

I enjoyed the serpent symbolism. First there's the Biblical reference to temptation and sin that factors heavily in Harriet and Danny's stories, further emphasized by the presence of characters like Eugene Ratliff, Loyal Reese, and Roy Dial. It also reminds me of the phrase "snake in the grass", referencing a hidden danger. Harriet and Danny both overlook danger on multiple occasions, only to find themselves in a great deal of it by the end of the book.

Tartt sure knows how to build her characters. Who would you say you liked the best in the book, and why?

Harriet, by far! Her penchant for forming friendships with the adults in her life and what most would call a tomboyish nature reminds me of myself at that age. It was also bittersweet to watch her slowly shed a childhood naivete as the conflict with the Ratliff brothers escalated. Our preteen years are usually very emotionally tumultuous, which can make writing a character of that age difficult. Tartt did a great job capturing Harriet's intelligence and tenacity without making her into a miniature adult. Life was always a little too straightforward for her and almost up to the end she held onto that childhood belief that no mistake or action is really permanent. That made it refreshing to see a young girl grow up without any of the cliched milestones: first kiss, first love, first period, etc. Instead of enduring a specific trial or test, Harriet gradually found herself occupying an adult world instead of a child's and that felt more authentic to the way things progress in life.

What would you say were the main messages of the book?

First and foremost I saw this as a coming-of-age story meant to capture a very particular time and place in American history. With such a broad view, I think any reader could glean any number of messages in the story depending on their life experience. Personally, I believe its main focus was the lies a person tells herself and the dangers that willful ignorance can pose. The reader witnesses most of this through Harriet, a child whose misconceptions and lack of understanding are more sympathetic given her age. Her strident morals point out the failings of adults (the church tragedy and its aftermath, for example) while her own quest for justice for her brother winds up illustrating the dangers of looking out on an individual or the world with too narrow a view. The book meandered around quite a bit—too much for me to confidently say there was a single uniting point to the story. When I finished my thoughts were on the intricacies of human relationships and how they can be poisoned by all sorts of prejudices. And although we see it less often in The Little Friend, even small acts of kindness can carry an equal significance in a person's life.

This book was one of my twelve selections (or two alternates) for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge. You can read more about the challenge and follow my progress here.

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