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Land of Serpents - Review of The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

A precocious girl's search for her brother's killer exudes reptilian imagery
by Marta Salij
Once upon a time, a small mouse found herself stranded on the bank of a wide and rising river.

"How will I ever get to my home?" she cried, and then sat on the bank to sob.

Presently she heard the grass swishing and bending around her.

"SSShhhh," said a dry and rumbling voice, deep in the grass. "I will take you acrosss."

The mouse peered into the blades to see a huge cobra, tongue flicking.

"But you'll eat me!" the mouse quaked.

"Nonsenssse," said the snake. "Would I offer you a favor if I planned to eat you? You mussst learn to trussst."

Well, that much was true, the mouse thought. She had always been suspicious, especially of snakes. How unfair she had been! Besides, the water was wide and she could not swim.

She clambered onto the snake's back.

The snake swirled through the water to the far bank with the mouse aboard. But just as it came up onto the grass, the snake hurled the mouse into the air and caught her in its mouth.

"Wait!" screeched the mouse, just as the snake's jaws began to close. "You promised you wouldn't eat me!"

"Sssorry," said the snake. "But you can't expect me to go against my nature."

Snakes, seen and unseen
There are snakes everywhere in Donna Tartt's second, magnificent novel, "The Little Friend," real ones and metaphoric ones.

And there is something cool and reptilian in the tone Tartt takes in this story of a young girl out to avenge her brother's murder amid snakes she sees and snakes she doesn't.

Coolness is very much Tartt's nature. She perfected a brilliant intellectual detachment in her name-making debut, 1992's "The Secret History," about a cabal of privileged college students in the aftermath of a murder. There, the characters were forced to move from being disengaged from the world -- from their arrogant belief that they were above engagement -- to halting involvement.

In "The Little Friend," the movement is the opposite, from passion to a hard-won detachment, of learning not to care too much. Consider it the price of coming on to the serpent in the garden, the one that presents the fruit of the tree of knowledge but exacts the loss of paradise.

The snake handler, the Eve, is Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, who is burdened by being the smartest person in her world, a small, stifling town in 1970s Mississippi.

Harriet is a marvelous creation, the sort of character that heartens smart girls and women who wonder why the world doesn't seem better prepared for them. Harriet is all the more amazing because she is the product of the murder of her 9-year-old brother when she was just a baby and of the subsequent implosion of her family. Her father has run off to Nashville with a trollop. Her older sister sleeps through her days. Her mother barely notices Harriet, consumed by the memory of her dead son.

Such a home will crush your nature or make it fierce. Harriet is fierce.

But Harriet is only 12 and must learn wisdom. She takes it upon herself to try to find her brother's killer, 12 years after the police have given up and the trail has run cold. She enlists her best friend, Hely Hull, who is half in love with Harriet and goes along thinking he might win her respect.

But Hely can't be forged like Harriett: His family is too sane, and besides, he's a boy. Tartt perfectly captures the horrors of growing up a smart and fierce girl in 1970s Mississippi (Tartt must know firsthand, having grown up in Grenada, Miss., population 20,000). Here's a passage from Harriet's weeks at Baptist camp:

"But Harriet was going to be in eighth grade next year; and what she had not expected was the horrifying new indignity of being classed -- for the first time ever -- a 'Teen Girl': a creature without mind, wholly protuberance and excretion, to judge from the literature she was given. She had not expected the chipper, humiliating filmstrips filled with demeaning medical information; she had not expected mandatory 'rap sessions' where the girls were not only urged to ask personal questions -- some of them, to Harriet's mind, frankly pornographic -- but to answer them as well."

Harriet finds sustenance in the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson and others and in her quixotic quest.

Harriet has a few human supporters, too. There's her grandmother, Edie, whom she resembles in looks and spirit. There's her mother's housekeeper, Ida Rhew, whom she loves without reflection. There is a gentle great-aunt, Libby, who provides her refuge.

But Harriet has far more enemies, including a band of richly drawn ex-con brothers who run a methamphetamine lab in a trailer outside of town and stalk her in a Trans Am. If this were a children's book, Harriet the spy would scrape her knees and bruise her ego and learn that she should trust those who have her best interests at heart. And the nasty felons would leave her alone.

This is a grown-up book, and one by Tartt, no less, so Harriet suffers to discover that even those who love her can cause her grievous harm. Is there no one she can trust? Maybe not, Tartt suggests. Maybe not.

This is also a decidedly old-fashioned novel, a fugue that conjures an older generation of Southern writers, from Carson McCullers and Harper Lee to Flannery O'Connor and even Truman Capote. Tartt does not do post-modern irony or pop-culture asides; her story grows out of plot and character alone. "The Little Friend" makes full use of the Southern gothic tradition of blending innocence and horror, comedy and tragedy, as in a conversation between two cobra-handling ministers:

" 'How come you didn't tell me these things didn't have the poison took out of them?' he asked abruptly.

"Dolphus's little brother seemed astonished. 'That's not in accordiance with the Scripture,' he said. His hill-country twang was as sharp as Dolphus's, but without the wryness, the gamesome cordiality. 'Working with the Signs, we work with the serpent as God made him.'

"Eugene said, curtly: 'I could have got bit.' "

"The Little Friend" is a timeless book, masterful in sweep and detail alike. This is one of the few contemporary books that I will gladly wager will be read by my grandchildren -- probably by flashlight, probably in relief that it speaks to the smart, fierce part of themselves.

Land of Serpents - Detroit Free Press, November 3, 2002. Marta Salij is the books writer for the Free Press.

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the little friend was not my favorite. sad that i had to wait 10 years for it.