In her debut novel, Eliza Minot delves into the minutiae of eight-year-old Via Revere's world on the day her mother dies in a car accident. Told almost entirely from Via's point of view in simple yet compelling language, The Tiny One takes place in Masconomo, Massachusetts, on Valentine's Day in the late 1970s.
Early on, Via says, "I can't stop thinking about the day that it happened.... I want to think about as much as I can that's happened. I think of the day and go over it in my mind. The day was like other days and then it happened. I want to think about it so much that I also don't want to think about it. But I want to think about it so I don't forget it.... Mum's dead, that was the day. I was in recess. I was at lunch. I listened to Miss Hunt in class. Lulu bugged me but she made me laugh too. Then Dad told me."
And so Via's reverie begins; the book's chapters mirror Via's schedule, from "The Breakfast," "The Bath" and "History with Mr. Waring" in the morning to "Lunch" and "A Special Assembly" before receiving "The News" in the afternoon. In each chapter, Via's narrative starts with a recounting of the scene she's inher fourth-grade classroom, the lunchroom, outside at recessthen jumps to stream-of-consciousness observations and memories of her early years with her mother and father and three older siblingsMarly, Pete, and Cy.
More a medley of vignettes than a structured novel, The Tiny One details the full range of childhood's small pleasures and minor catastrophes: Via collecting objects from around the househer father's belt, a glass figurineand wrapping them up as Christmas presents; an older girl at school squeezing a baby chick to death while Via watches; Via sitting in the audience at her aunt's graduation and wondering why people clap; her parents carrying Via to safety and bandaging her up when she cuts her leg playing in the water at their summer home in Maine; Via overhearing her parents fighting from a hiding place in the kitchen.
Tragedy lurks at the heart of the story, but the novel isn't morbid or depressing. Minot focuses primarily on happy times, the laughter and wonder of early childhood. Some of the book's most memorable moments are those in which Via and her mother cuddle and giggle: "She squeezes my hips and the warm wind is blowing at us. 'And I love you,' she says. I nuzzle in. 'Mmmmm,' she says, hugging me, and I say it too. I get my nose close into her neck. I hear the waves from in there. I want to get inside her neck. I feel glad and like the glowy bugs are squirmy inside of me and it will all last forever."
Though the exclusive use of the child's voice is sometimes limiting, Minot authentically captures the thinking and meandering of an eight-year-old's mind. In Via's eyes, everything in her insular world takes on great importance. Lunch in the cafeteria with "mint green colored" trays provides Via with the opportunity to supply a treatise on school lunch: "The best sandwich is grilled cheese but we always have it with tomato soup and I don't like tomato soup.... On Fridays we don't have meat ever so we have fish sticks or pizza since Bernice doesn't cook meat on Friday. You can't eat meat on Friday if you're Catholic. I know that's why because of Mum and us but other people probably don't know why. Everyone always wants pizza. I like fish sticks better but I pretend I like pizza as much as everyone else does." Such reminiscencesoften funnymake it easy to remember one's own childhood obsessions and phobias.
It's hard not to compare The Tiny One to Monkeys, a 1986 collection of connected short stories by Minot's older sister, Susan. Both books draw their inspiration from the sisters' large New England family and their mother's early death, though the family in Monkeys contains seven siblings, and Via's counterpart, Minnie, appears in only about half of the stories. Monkeys is a strong and more straightforward book; unlike The Tiny One, it includes an episode that takes place after the mother's death, when the siblings and their father scatter her ashes at sea.
Eliza Minot doesn't show us the aftermath of the tragedy beyond the day of the funeral. She doesn't need to: Her recapitulation of the day Via can't forget expresses the complete devastation of the loss. In the last few pages, though, Viawise and without self-pityclearly articulates what's become abundantly clear over 250 pages: that the love she received from her mother in those eight rich and nurturing years will always be with her.
About the Author
Eliza Minot was born in Beverly, Massachusetts. She lives in New York with her husband.