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The Little Friend By Donna Tartt

Young heroine is destined to win respect but not hearts

Sunday, November 10, 2002

By Kathleen George

Harriet Cleve Dufresnes is the 12-year-old protagonist of Donna Tartt's much-awaited second novel, and she takes her place among former child protagonists of literature, such as:

Frankie Adams in Carson McCullers' 1940 "A Member of the Wedding," Stephen Wheatley in Michael Fraynes "Spies," Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan's "Atonement," and Marsha Eberhardt in Suzanne Berne's "A Crime in the Neighborhood."

Harriet shares several traits with Frankie. Both are histrionic and miserable; both are tomboys; both have as best friends the boy next door (Hely is as subservient to Harriet as John Henry was to Frankie); both girls are nurtured by the black women who are their housekeepers.


The Little Friend

By Donna Tartt

Knopf ($26)


Yet Harriet's world, set in the 1970s, is much harsher than Frankie's.

Child protagonists are likely to be precocious. Like Briony, Harriet is gifted, a passionate reader, a child forever on high alert. Like Stephen and Marsha, Harriet adopts a belief in circumstances that make her a spy or a detective.

Her place is a small Mississippi town, where a "good" salary for a black housekeeper is $35 a week and a shabby one is $20.

Harriet's father no longer lives with the family, and he wonders why they need Ida. The reason is that Harriet's mother is tranquilized to the point of nonfunctioning, and her older sister, Allison, sleeps all the time.

There is no food in the house beyond what Ida prepares. Even that amount is minimal, and done without thought.

Among Harriet's extended family is a grandmother, Edie, and several great-aunts. The women of the family chirp and nod and puzzle over Harriet's behavior, but they move on with their quirky and solitary lives and don't actually notice her or answer her questions.

Nobody notices. The family is emotionally blind and wounded. The reason for this, Harriet decides, is the blow from the death of her brother, Robin, whom everyone describes as a vibrant, wonderful boy.

Robin was found hanged in their yard when he was 9 and Harriet was an infant. No one will talk to her about the unsolved murder.

What would a brilliant, restless child do in the heat of an endless summer when she is 12 but set out to solve it?

Harriet has a partner in Hely. She proposes wild schemes; he is her knight, ready to serve. At first, it seems their detective work is part of their precocity and that it will be richly comic, too, because what we see of Harriet is a smart kid who doesn't tolerate a hypocrite or a fool.

But Harriet's ideas become more and more macabre, not to mention dangerous. She decides she knows who killed her brother.

It's Danny Ratliff, who lives with three brothers and a forever-dying-but-not-dead grandmother. This almost caricatured Dickensian family -- hapless, comic, frightening -- lives on the other side of the tracks. Their lives consist of fried foods, drugs, illness, religion and a distrust of education.

The novel veers from hair-raising, heart-pounding scenes of chase and danger to slow meandering scenes of interpersonal conflict to morbid, boldly sketched comic scenes that comment ironically on money, religion, prejudice.

But as the story progresses, the plot becomes more difficult to believe and its protagonist turns decidedly cruel and detached. She constantly endangers the novel with her refusal to love:

"Harriet was overcome all of a sudden with a strange blankness and languor. From where she was, so high up, it all looked flat and unimportant somehow, accidental."

Her world is governed by malevolent or accidental forces. If there is benevolence, it's stiff, foolish or easily swallowed up.

The ideal reader must dispense with the longing for sentiment and the wish for deliverance. Like Hely, that reader has to fall in love with the impressive boldness and the significant hard intelligence of both novel and heroine.

This follow-up to Tartt's "The Secret History" is bold, startlingly intelligent and entertaining. But I wanted feeling to blossom in Harriet -- to give my own feelings free rein.

Kathleen George is a theater professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the novel "Taken" and "The Man in the Buick," a collection of short stories.

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