Book Worm: A tall ‘upstate’ tale for the 21st century

Tiffany Baker brings upstate New York to life in her stellar debut.

Some places, it seems, just make better stories.

The London of Oliver Twist, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula comes to mind, as does the Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer and Easy Rawlins. Yet no poorer in literary pedigree—although perhaps a bit less likely to spring immediately to mind—is upstate New York, home to Ichabod Crane, Leatherstocking and now Truly Plaice, the massive narrator and heroine of Tiffany Baker’s The Little Giant of Aberdeen County.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County features a decade-spanning storyline of a scale on par with its gigantic protagonist. Think Forrest Gump meets a Dove commercial gone awry, with a touch of both The X-Files and Brokeback Mountain added for good measure. On the most basic level, though, is the story of Truly’s struggle for acceptance as someone different in a small town where most folks are all the same.

“I was a lot of things,” Truly reminisces early in the book. “Bigger than most boys. Stronger, too. But that didn’t matter if you were a girl. All anybody ever saw about me, I thought, were the parts that were missing.”

It’s those missing parts (“lovely clothes, and proper manners and tidy hair”) that Truly’s sister, Aberdeen beauty queen Serena Jane, has in spades. And it’s those parts that drive the sisters apart after their parents’ death, a schism reconciled only after Serena Jane’s mysterious disappearance following the birth of her first child, Bobby.

Bobby’s birth and upbringing are the catalysts that drive The Little Giant toward its climax, as the good-hearted Truly struggles with Bobby’s sinister father, town doctor Robert Morgan, for the young boy’s soul. It is a struggle that exacts a deadly toll on both sides and reveals the book for what it truly is: a surprisingly rollicking meditation on the nature of life and death in the tradition of America’s greatest tall tales.

Through it all, the town of Aberdeen remains a dominant presence in the book, a character as much as it is a geographic locale. In that way—and in others—Baker seems to channel the same spirit that invigorated another, recent upstate New York novel: Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton, a runaway critical success last winter. Baker’s Little Giant seems poised to meet a similar fate, already receiving a number of strong reviews from critics nationwide.

In creating the larger-than-life character of Truly, Baker presented herself with a challenge few debut novelists would be able to meet. Writing a “realistic” novel is hard for even the most experienced of authors; doing so through the voice of a patently unrealistic character seems nigh impossible.

Somehow, however, Baker manages to do just that: to create lovable-but-flawed characters who really feel real, despite the tall-tale nature of the events that surround them.

Like the best of all folk stories, this one has its morals and lessons, the discovery of which is as much of a reward as any reader could need. For those seeking non-stop action or a rocket-paced plot, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County would not be the best choice. For those interested in getting to know the work of a promising writer and storyteller at the beginning of her career, however, it certainly would.

And for those to whom an unlikely tall tale featuring a rag-tag band of small-town misfits just sounds like fun—well, you won’t be disappointed.

“Me, I’ve never been a big reader,” Truly explains. “I figure that if a secret has an answer, it’ll out on its own if it’s meant to.”

Let us all hope that Baker’s talents are one of those secrets—for they are surely too great not to be shared among us all.

Peter Chomko can be reached at

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