Books by Mississippi Writers 1996-2010



Donna Tartt


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By Donna Tartt Knopf (Hardcover, $26.00, ISBN: 0679439382, 10/2002) Widely anticipated over the decade since her debut in The Secret History, Tartt’s second novel confirms her talent as a superb storyteller, sophisticated observer of human nature and keen appraiser of ethics and morality. If the theme of The Secret History was intellectual arrogance, here it is dangerous innocence. The death of nine-year-old Robin Cleve Dufresnes, found hanging from a tree in his own backyard in Alexandria, Miss., has never been solved. The crime destroyed his family: it turned his mother into a lethargic recluse; his father left town; and the surviving siblings, Allison and Harriet, are now, 12 years later—it is the early ’70s—largely being raised by their black maid and a matriarchy of female relatives headed by their domineering grandmother and her three sisters. Although every character is sharply etched, 12-year-old Harriet-smart, stubborn, willful-is as vivid as a torchlight. Like many preadolescents, she’s fascinated by secrets. She vows to solve the mystery of her brother’s death and unmask the killer, whom she decides, without a shred of evidence, is Danny Ratliff, a member of a degenerate, redneck family of hardened criminals. (The Ratliff brothers are good to their grandmother, however; their solicitude at times lends the novel the antic atmosphere of a Booth cartoon.) Harriet’s pursuit of Danny, at first comic, gathers fateful impetus as she and her best friend, Hely, stalk the Ratliffs, and eventually, as the plot attains the suspense level of a thriller, leads her into mortal danger. Harriet learns about betrayal, guilt and loss, and crosses the threshold into an irrevocable knowledge of true evil. If Tartt wandered into melodrama in The Secret History, this time she’s achieved perfect control over her material, melding suspense, character study and social background. Her knowledge of Southern ethos—the importance of family, of heritage, of race and class—is central to the plot, as is her take on Southerners’ ability to construct a repertoire, veering toward mythology, of tales of the past. The double standard of justice in a racially segregated community is subtly reinforced, and while Tartt’s portrait of the maid, Ida Rhew, evokes a stereotype, Tartt adds the dimension of bitter pride to Ida’s character. In her first novel, Tartt unveiled a formidable intelligence. The Little Friend flowers with emotional insight, a gift for comedy and a sure sense of pacing. Wisely, this novel eschews a feel-good resolution. What it does provide is an immensely satisfying reading experience. Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. (from Publishers Weekly) Tartt’s second novel (following The Secret History, 1992) is well worth the long wait. It is an exceptionally suspenseful, flawlessly written story fairly teeming with outsize characters and roiling emotion, and at its center, in the eye of the storm, is a ruthlessly clever, poker-faced 12-year-old named Harriet. When she was just a baby, her nine-year-old brother, Robin, was murdered. In the years since, her mother has been entirely defeated by her grief, often lying in bed with a headache, while her father has been absent, working in another town. Harriet’s stern grandmother and dithering aunts have idealized and exalted Robin, leaving Harriet and her sister feeling wholly inadequate. After suffering an immense loss—the firing of her “beloved, grumbling, irreplaceable” black maid and surrogate mother—Harriet decides to get revenge on Danny Ratliff, the man she believes murdered her brother. She thinks she can resurrect the happy family she knows only from photographs. With muscular, visceral descriptive prose and a relentless narrative drive—the climax is almost unbearably tense—Tartt details how a young girl exacts street justice with cold cunning. And the abusive Ratliffs are a stunning creation; hopped up on methamphetamine and twisted dynamics, they are a modern-day version of Faulkner’s Snopes family. Tartt’s first novel was a surprise runaway best-seller; this time around, no one should be taken by surprise. —Joanne Wilkinson. Booklist. Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved.

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