The boundaries of cruelty
by Keith Taylor
Rachel DeWoskin grew up in Ann Arbor, and her new novel, Big Girl Small, makes it clear that she remembers it well. Here her smart and witty protagonist, Judy, tries to imagine what the city might have been like before she was born, back in the 1980s:
the place would have had more boutiques and fewer strip malls, the same stadium and roads, but I always picture it as an old-fashioned college town, music pouring out the windows of Hill Auditorium, dancers in the shadows at Power Center, the Brown Jug lit up on campus, open all night. That's where Michigan students sat drinking thin, pre-Starbucks coffee out of cream-colored diner mugs.Judy's voice, her humor, her biting adolescent sarcasm do a lot more than just skewer her hometown. She uses language to protect herself. The first paragraph begins--"When people make you feel small, it means they shrink you down close to nothing, diminish you, make you feel like shit"--and it ends--"I know that small and shit are the same because I'm sixteen years old and three feet nine inches tall." Judy joins that subset of great characters who view the world from a smaller size, but this time the character is a teenaged girl trying to navigate a very familiar Ann Arbor. She is funny, but she is also smart. She has figured out how people use language and how they forget about its power. She knows "where the lines are between being funny and being brutal." And she wonders:
. . . why it is that everywhere I look, other people seem to be crossing those boundaries constantly? Jumping, falling, leaping over the line from banter into cruelty. Sometimes it's on purpose and other times it's by accident, but in any case, people savage each other. Maybe they can't help it.And much of the rest of this novel is a deeply troubling story of the cruelty Judy--whom DeWoskin has carefully taught us to love--is made to
suffer. I don't want to give too much of the book away, because I think it is likely Big Girl Small will get a wide readership in Ann Arbor, but it might be enough to say that this novel becomes a portrait of the indecent cruelties unleashed on us by new technologies and social media. DeWoskin's Judy is one small person forced to flee--yes, perhaps just from her high school to a cheap motel "on the outskirts of Ypsi"--because she imagines the very real possibility that her world may have been destroyed by these new powers. The joy of the book is that this very big small character finds her way back to her life through some older, almost forgotten ways of living--compassion and forgiveness. But DeWoskin's abilities never allow Judy to sound quite as sappy about it as I just did.
Rachel DeWoskin reads and signs copies of Big Girl Small at Nicola's Books on
[Originally published in May, 2011.]