Near the end of And Me Among Them, the striking fourth novel from Toronto’s Kristen den Hartog, the author points out that giants in fairy tales are nearly always men.
And where those giants manage to make it out of the story alive, they generally disappear over a mountain or deep down into a cave. “All too often that’s where he goes to escape the civilized world, because if he lived within it, what would we make of him?” den Hartog asks. “And how would he see us, in return?”
It’s tempting, then, to read And Me Among Them as a book that runs resolutely, albeit quietly, against the popular grain. Let us count the subversions: The giant in this story is a female, a teenager, and lives in a regular Canadian town. And rather than some crudely sketched villain, she’s basically a sweetheart who likes people and wants nothing more than to live peaceably among them.
But perhaps the biggest difference is that den Hartog’s novel is neither a fairy tale nor its usual inversion, the tedious scientific blabfest—both contriving to reduce the giant to some manageable essence, be it moral (monsters are evil) or biological (the condition is traceable to genes X, Y and Z). This book occupies a middle ground that is both lyrical and appealingly nimble.
Our heroine is Ruth, a typical girl growing up in a small industrial town in the years following the Second World War. Typical, that is, if you discount the fact that she grows to more than seven feet tall by the time she hits teenagehood—and that she seems to be able to read her parents’ minds. This latter power, though, doesn’t seem to affect her daily life all that much. In these moments Ruth is more an objective witness, a seer, than a vulnerable child. Ruth neutrally processes her father’s infidelities as soon as he’s committed them; she understands her mother’s deep-rooted neuroses better than any spouse or confidante ever could. It’s the whole giant thing that’s a problem.
Yet here, too, the story subverts expectations. Ruth is teased and gawked at by her classmates, to be sure, but her status as an outsider always feels eerily… normal. But Ruth doesn’t have the luxury of harmless adolescent goofing around. When her only friend tells her a string of increasingly far-fetched lies—which points to the girl’s own insecurities, rather than any real maliciousness—Ruth can see only betrayal. All teenagers assume people are laughing at them behind their backs; only in Ruth’s case is it true, every single time.
Den Hartog also keenly understands that a child’s problems are borne equally, if not more so, by her parents. The accidental toll Ruth’s condition takes on her parents is drawn in heartbreakingly crystalline detail.
Since this is a novel about community and fitting in, And Me Among Them is at its best when also at its slowest and most unassuming. Ruth would love nothing more than a sleepy daily routine and, at times, she nearly gets there. But her health problems—despite her size, she’s actually very weak, with poor joints and circulation, as well as a perpetual ringing in her ears—eventually take their toll, as they do to all real-life giants.
Ironically, it’s only when the action picks up, near the end, that the novel starts to sag. A traffic accident, an emergency excursion to New York City, and the book’s lone scientific epiphany all occur in the final pages—all of which culminates in an overly busy climax, as well as a few too many happy-ending platitudes.
For the most part, though, this is an elegant, satisfying investigation of small-town Canadian life, teenage isolation and the universal quest for acceptance. The fact that it stars a seven-foot-tall clairvoyant is almost beside the point.
Freehand Books, 208 pp, $21.95, paperback
(review originally appeared, in a slightly different format, in The Edmonton Journal, May 29, 2011)May 28, 2011