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The Little Friend

Harriet's fascination with her brother's death leads her to decide to find the murderer with the reluctant help of her younger but devoted friend, a boy, Hely Hull. The Dufresnes' stalwart black maid, Ida Rhew, reveals that Robin had a fight with another boy shortly before his death. Harriet discovers that the boy is Danny Ratliff, the son of a highly dysfunctional local methamphetamine producing family. Farish Ratliff, an elder brother, runs the drug business with the help of Danny and the connivance of his grandmother, Gum. Farish, not a particularly intelligent man, is planning a drug shipment hidden within a truck transporting venomous snakes, which another brother, Eugene, uses to support his Evangelical preaching.

The Little Friend

Harriet's father, Dixon, visits her while she is recovering from her ordeal in hospital and reveals that Danny had in fact been Robin's "little friend" and was distraught when he heard of Robin's death. The authorities never discover Harriet and Hely's involvement with the Ratliffs, as her doctors consider her condition to be the result of an epileptic episode.

The book largely focuses on the life of Harriet and her friend Hely as they investigate the death of Harriet's brother Robin. Throughout the book, Harriet references Treasure Island, The Jungle Book, a book about the life of Robert Falcon Scott and a fairy tale about the King of Snakes while, in contrast, Hely often references From Russia with Love.

In 1981, Tartt entered the University of Mississippi at Oxford. When she was a freshman at the university, the influential author-in-residence Willie Morris read her work and declared her a genius. Morris helped get Tartt admitted to a graduate writing class taught by Barry Hannah, though Tartt was only a freshman. Finding that the university did not meet her needs, Tartt transferred to Bennington College in Vermont as a sophomore. There, she became friends with Brett Easton Ellis, who went on to write Less Than Zero and American Psycho.

While still a student at Bennington, Tartt began writing what became her first published novel, The Secret History. After graduating in 1986, she briefly attended art school and lived in New England. Tartt also continued to work on her novel, which took about eight years to complete. Along the way, Tartt's friendship with Ellis led to her signing with his literary agent, Amanda Urban. With Urban's help, Tartt received an advance of nearly half a million dollars for The Secret History after a bidding war between publishers. Tartt later received another million dollars for the paperback rights and foreign rights to the book.

In May, twelve years after Robin's death, his cat Weenie is dying. Allison is upset about the cat; she considers it her closest friend. Edie tells Allison (who is girlish and fragile) and Harriet (who is "neither pretty nor sweet") that the cat is old and should be put to sleep, and she takes it away to the veterinarian. Harriet's friend, an eleven-year-old boy named Hely, arrives while Edie is gone. When Edie returns with the cat's body, Harriet touches it; it is the first time she touches something dead, and it is a profound experience for her. The three children bury the cat in the backyard. Mrs. Fountain wants to know what they are doing and seems glad the cat is dead. Harriet swears at her, and the woman retreats to call and report the children's behavior to their mothers.

Harriet takes the check to the club and leaves it with Hely's older brother, Pemberton, a college dropout who works there as a lifeguard. She asks him about her brother's death. Pem, who had been Robin's friend, tells her that kids like Danny Ratliff used to boast about committing the crime. He cautions her that Danny is crazy and dangerous and was recently released from prison. Pem also asks Harriet if Allison will be coming to the pool this summer. Later, Pem sees Allison walking and gives her a ride. Hely, who has a crush on Harriet, sees Pem and Allison out together, and Harriet sees Pem bring Allison home.

Eugene Ratliff, Danny's older brother, lives in the upper apartment of a house owned by Roy Dial. The lower floor is occupied by Mormon missionaries, so the entire dwelling is known as the "Mission." Eugene is a former criminal who is now a self-styled preacher. In his apartment are many snakes in boxes, owned by Loyal Reese, a snake-handling preacher from Kentucky. Loyal's brother Dolphus was in prison for murder and knew Eugene and Farish (the eldest of the Ratliff brothers) from prison. Farish and Dolphus remained friends, and Loyal's visit was arranged by Farish and Danny. Eugene is suspicious of their motives.

Danny is unsure who he saw at the tower. As Farish rambles on about his conspiracy theories, Danny wrestles with his own paranoia. Danny worries that Farish knows that he is planning to steal the drugs from the water tower. High and driving around town with Farish, he sees Harriet talking to Edie on Edie's porch. Danny believes that Harriet was sent to spy on them. He wants to question her and soon finds that she is walking home alone. Seeing the car, Harriet runs through yards until she finds Chester, her family's yard man, doing some work at house in the neighborhood. She hides in a tool shed while Chester deals with Danny and Farish, then Chester takes the upset child home. Danny realizes he knows Edie from when he was friends with Robin as a child. Danny was stunned and distraught when he learned that Robin had died and, to mask his grief, he started bragging about having committed the murder.

Pretty, sixteen-year-old Allison is Harriet's sister, Charlotte's daughter, and Edie's granddaughter. Like her mother, Allison lives in a haze, albeit one that is not drug-induced. It is believed that as a four-year-old child she saw something related to Robin's murder. Allison spends much of her time sleeping, and though popular at school, she is unengaged in life. She considers Weenie, Robin's cat, her best friend, and has a soft spot for animals and poor children like Lasharon who show up on her doorstep. Allison spends time with Pem outside of the house.

Harriet does not have many friends, but she once had a loyal following of younger boys, with Hely, a boy a year younger being her favorite and closest pal. Harriet enlists Hely's help in figuring out who murdered her brother Robin when she was an infant. Convinced that Danny Ratliff is responsible, Harriet spends the summer investigating him and the murder. She goes as far as to follow Danny, steal a snake, toss the snake on Danny's car, and survive Danny's attempt to drown her in the water tower. By the end of the novel, Harriet doubts her conclusions about Danny and has been diagnosed with epilepsy.

Hely is Harriet's eleven-year-old best friend. The pair spend much of their time together swimming at the country club and going on various adventures. Hely sometimes thinks that he loves Harriet, whom he believes is a genius, and many of his actions are meant to impress or help her. Hely assists Harriet with her plans to investigate Robin's murder and get revenge on Danny Ratliff, including stealing a snake and hiding a gun she drops from the water tower.

Pemberton, commonly known as Pem, is Hely's brother. Pem is the same age as Robin and was the boy's friend. Pem is now a college dropout who works as a lifeguard at the country club. Pem occasionally helps Hely and Harriet by picking them up when they are tired and offering knowledge relevant to their investigation. Pem is interested in Allison.

Mentally retarded Curtis is the youngest Ratliff brother. He is large and friendly, but overbearing. Curtis lives with his grandmother and his older brothers in trailers on the poor side of town. Curtis likes everyone, but he gets upset when others are angry around him. Curtis shows Harriet the snakes in Loyal's truck, one of which she eventually steals.

Issues of race and social class are touched upon throughout The Little Friend. In the book's fictional but realistic late-1970s small-town Mississippi setting, respectably well-off white people have only a certain kind of relationship with black people. African American men and women work for them as household help, but they are not their friends or peers. As servants, African American household workers can be appreciated, as Ida and Odean are, but they are still only employees and there is a definite social distance. Harriet and Allison are very attached to Ida, the only stable adult in their daily lives, but Charlotte sees Ida as disposable. Ida's attachment to the children also has limits, because she knows her relationship with them is on a flimsy foundation.

First novels are tough. It's tough to write one (I've done it, so I know), and it's tough to get one published (I've done that, too, so I know that, as well). For the rest of us, it's quite often hard to read them, as they're not always of the best quality. Their stories are sometimes hackneyed. Sometimes coming-of-age-like. Sometimes they're just downright bad.And then, other times, they're sublime. A few years ago, there was a novel called A Simple Plan by Scott Smith. It was, as they say, un-put-down-able. In that respect, it was very much like another first novel, The Secret History by Donna Tartt.When I first got my hands on The Secret History, I devoured it. I mean, it was all I did for days and days. I didn't eat. Didn't sleep. Didn't call anyone or answer the phone. I think I bathed, but I'm not sure; after all, it was ten years ago. It was an amazing piece of work. Scholarly in a way that made you want to know as much as Tartt obviously did. Thrilling in a way that made you want to go back to school and be a little more decadent than you were -- and a little smarter. Well-written in a way that made you think about whether you really could be a novelist. It was the kind of novel you talked about, argued about and wanted to hold on to, like a close friend. It was the kind of novel that became part of you. The Secret History actually lived up to all the hype it received. That alone was -- and is -- a rare thing.And then, to follow it up, Donna Tartt wrote... nothing. No one heard from her for years. And then more years after that. Sure, there were a few dribs, maybe a drab or two. But a novel we could all sink our collective teeth into? A dark tale we could love with passion and talk about incessantly with everyone who would listen? No.Know why? Because as tough as first novels are, second novels are worse. If one's first is lucky enough to be well-received, one then feels the pressure to Do It Again. Go ahead, be a sophomore, the world says. And more often than not, that second effort is just... well, sophomoric. Dull. Not lifeless, but certainly not crackling with the excitement of the first, headline-grabbing effort.Though lightning may strike me down and the good people of the reading world may disagree with me with all their heart and soul, I am here to tell you that, despite everything you may read to the contrary, despite all the cover stories and rave reviews that will doubtless appear, despite people bowing down in the streets, Donna Tartt's new novel, The Little Friend -- a decade-in-the-writing, salivated over by rabid fans from Podunk to the Netherlands (where Tartt is something of a literary god), closely guarded by its publisher until the last possible moment -- just isn't that good.There. I said it.And I didn't hear any thunder. No lightning struck my house. The tectonic plates didn't shift. Hmm. Curious.I wanted to love The Little Friend. I really did. I read about it early, tried to gather as much information as I could on the Internet -- and there was very little to be had. I tried in vain to score an early copy and finally had to borrow a friend's, so I could read it and review it in a timely manner.Once I got my mitts on it, I carved out a block of time and dove in. Head first. I took it on vacation -- with no back-up book. And the truth is, it starts off well. 041b061a72


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