The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

     The murder of a beloved child sets the tone for this rambling, dense novel about an extended family in small town 1970s era Mississippi.  Harriet is the main character, a bookish twelve year old tomboy who was a baby at the time her brother was found hung from a tree in the yard.  His death casts a strong pall on the family – their mother spends her days in an anti-depressive stupor, The_little_friend and Harriet and her sisters are mainly left on their own, though occasionally looked on by the maid, their grandmother, and a contingent of elderly aunts.  Harriet – self-reliant and determined beyond her age – is set to find out who killed her older brother, and suspects certain members of the Ratliffs, an unsavory white trash family who have a strong reputation for petty crime in the area.  As a fact, the oldest brother of the lot runs a cottage industry methamphetamine lab to supplement his shaky taxidermy business, and bullies his younger brother into shouldering most of his harder dirty work.

     The plot thickens as Harriet and her friend Hely, hell-bent on revenge, have several harrowing run-ins and near misses with the Ratliff brothers.  A subplot running part way through the book is the involvement of Eugene Ratliff, a self-styled man of God, with a snake-handling young preacher who has dozens of his reptile charges in tow.  This potential menace and other natural un-niceties together make up formidable adversaries to all involved.

     The Little Friend can be a slow read in places, but if you like a storyline to gradually unfold rather than hit you in the face, I’d give it a shot.  Tartt writes beautifully – if savoring well-crafted prose is a high enjoyment of your reading experience, it’s definitely worth the read.  And if suspense is part of your reading pleasure, there are parts that will make you jump.  I did.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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