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Book Review: 'Fierce Little Thing,' Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

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Published December 15, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 15, 2021 at 10:22 a.m.


Miranda Beverly-Whittemore - COURTESY OF RUBIDIUM WU
  • Courtesy Of Rubidium Wu
  • Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

What induces someone to join a cultlike group? As a child in the 1970s, watching the adults around me float in and out of various questionable belief systems, I was convinced that kids were too grounded to heed the siren song of cult leaders.

But the opposite is true in the fifth novel from Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, a recent transplant to Vermont. Much of Fierce Little Thing takes place in a short-lived commune in the Maine woods, known as Home and guided by a charismatic fellow named Abraham, who urges his flock to "Unthing" themselves of material concerns.

At age 13, Saskia, the novel's narrator, falls under Abraham's spell. Later, he will tell her that he always excelled at manipulating the children of Home: "It was so easy with you. So much easier than with the adults."

The young Saskia is no ordinary child, though, and she has her own reasons for getting on board with Abraham's program. The full significance of their bond emerges gradually in this devious novel that jumps rapidly back and forth between two timelines: one beginning in the early '90s, when Saskia is a preteen, and one in the present.

Fierce Little Thing opens with an indelible chapter that sets the stage for a family tragedy — the loss of Saskia's younger brother. She addresses him in second person throughout the novel. Saskia's father goes to prison for his son's murder, while her socialite mother flees abroad, abandoning her remaining child to a wealthy grandmother. Saskia lands in the care of bohemian family friends, one of whom eventually brings her to Home.

In this off-the-grid commune where people speak of being "Unthinged from the patriarchy," the grieving Saskia believes she detects spectral traces of her brother. She imagines him "telling me in your otherworldly way that Home was my true home, that on this land, I would be safe." Bonding with four friends her own age, Saskia becomes committed to keeping Home safe from the outside world.

Meanwhile, in the present day, Home has long since disbanded. The adult Saskia has found refuge in her late grandmother's mansion, where she has spent the past 16 years as a shut-in.

Fierce Little Thing by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Flatiron Books, 432 pages. $27.99. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Fierce Little Thing by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Flatiron Books, 432 pages. $27.99.

Her solitude is broken when one of her Home friends arrives with sobering news. Messages have arrived from someone who claims to know the terrible secret the five friends have been keeping since they left the commune. If they don't return together to the site of Home, the sender will reveal the secret.

It's the perfect setup for a suspense novel. But Fierce Little Thing is less a twisty thriller than an in-depth, lyrically written study of a troubled mind. Beverly-Whittemore builds tension by parceling out her story in tiny pieces: 143 chapters, some as short as a paragraph, alternating between past and present.

This structure makes for a reading experience as fractured and disorienting as Saskia's experience of the world. It's also an effective way to tease later revelations. By the time the full truth emerges, it isn't much of a surprise; reading between the lines of Saskia's two narratives tells us what we need to know.

The past sections of the narrative, in which we watch Saskia being drawn in by Home and Abraham, are by far the most compelling. Beverly-Whittemore excels at showing us how a grieving mind broods over its loss and creates phantoms to fill the void. "[In] those days, I found you in anything small — kittens, stones, acorns," Saskia tells her dead brother. Later, she notes that "it was exhausting to hold the whole possibility of you inside every minute." In the Maine woods, she feels able to lay down that burden, hearing echoes of her lost sibling in nature itself: a "living thrum in a language I didn't yet speak."

Saskia's interactions with the wild landscape, Abraham and the other adults at Home crackle with tension. Sarah, a baker with a dark past who teaches Saskia to nurture a sourdough starter she calls "the Mother," is a particularly fascinating figure.

Saskia's four peers aren't as carefully drawn, however. As adults, they continue to be sketches rather than vivid characters, their conflicts more programmatic than organic, and the present-day parts of the story suffer as a result.

Perhaps the problem is that our narrator has a hard time seeing beyond her own obsessions. "You are so out of touch," one of her friends tells her, accusing her of living in a "castle on a hill." The phrase recalls Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, whose unreliable narrator resembles Saskia in other ways, too: her bereaved status, her longing for safety and domesticity, and her willingness to resort to violence to keep out the outside world.

Also like Jackson's Merricat, Saskia is a creature of whimsy. That tendency manifests itself in Beverly-Whittemore's prose as a wealth of sentence fragments and poetic uses of verbs: "the adults gust toward departure"; "[t]he dog gingered forward"; "the door might tussle open." At one point, a room is "clatter[ing] with spoons and slurps and sighs."

It's a clever and creative style but, as the book stretches on, an increasingly exhausting one. One starts to wish for a little less picturesque indirectness and a little more grounding.

Unreliable narrators exert a powerful magnetism, but they tend to be better in small doses — something that is true of both Saskia and Abraham (each a storyteller in their own way). Fierce Little Thing might have had a stronger impact if Beverly-Whittemore had told her story as succinctly as Jackson told hers.

Still, the novel keeps us reading with its convolutions and its unique and convincing take on the dynamics of paranoid enclaves. One of Saskia's friends says he feels as if "Home infected us with a virus that meant we couldn't live like normal people." For anyone who's ever lived in an insular intentional community, whether they loved or hated the experience, I suspect that description will strike home.

From Fierce Little Thing

Seven A.M. The kitchen tumbles with light-tossed dust. Outside, the northern cardinal harangues, a bird so proud they named him twice: Cardinalis cardinalis. I sip my Ceylon tea. I check on the sourdough starter, better known as the Mother. She's ravenous on this June dazzler, and I sate her: one part starter, one part water, one and a half parts flour; mix to a tangy slop; shroud in linen by the window, below a fast-moving herd of cumulus clouds. Next, I marry last night's leaven with a pile of flour and a splash of water. And so the Mother and I begin again what we began yesterday and the day before, and all the days before that, since the very day sixteen years ago that I made Grandmother's grand, white, shuttered house my own: tomorrow's loaves.

The gate bell rings. Sludge covers my hands. I think to wash them, but the ring returns, relentless, insistent. This happens sometimes. City folks get lost. What a relief to discover an unfamiliar, dark SUV appearing now on the black-and-white screen just inside the front door. I'll just slap on a charming voice to send the lost soul on their merry way.

"You've made a wrong turn," I say into the box beside the door, pretending a slop of dough isn't slipping down my elbow. "What's your final destination? You'll need—"

"Saskia." The screen pixilates the man's face, but I'd know Xavier anywhere.

Topsy's all the way at the top of the stairs, hidden in my drawer. Already, my palms ache to rip him from his hiding spot. I'll bury my face in his scalp, so the smell of you can make me whole.

"Saskia, let me in." Xavier knows better than this. He knows to leave me alone — unless. Unless what's coming is worse than what I do.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Home Truths"