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Literature / The Little Friend

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"It's awful being a child," she said, simply, "at the mercy of other people."

The Little Friend is Donna Tartt's second novel, following her immensely successful debut The Secret History.

In the town of Alexandria, Mississippi, on Mother's Day, the Cleve family suffers an immense tragedy: the murder of nine-year-old Robin Cleve Dufresnes. For twelve years, the murder remains unsolved, an uncomfortable piece of history that the Cleves prefer to never discuss, until Robin's sister, Insufferable Genius Harriet, decides she must solve the mystery of her brother's untimely death.

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This work contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • When Harriet's father isn't completely absent he's picking fights with her that often end in her being beaten.
    • The father of the Ratliff brothers is described as being almost psychotically abusive towards his sons.
  • Aerith and Bob: In spite of not being a fantasy universe it does manage to pull this: there are characters named Edith, Charlotte and Harriet but there are also characters named Farish, Loyal and Tattycorum.
  • Bad Guys Play Pool: The local pool hall is supposedly the center of all low-life activity in Alexandria.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Harriet doesn't find out who killed Robin, but she at least realizes that Danny was innocent.
  • Corporal Punishment: Lots and lots of references, from parental whippings to institutional paddlings.
  • Creepy Child: How Danny feels about Harriet.
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  • Deep South
  • Foil: Hely is this to Harriet.
  • Hates Being Touched: Harriet isn't keen on physical affection and endures it only when she considers it to be in her best interests.
  • Infant Immortality: Both averted by Robin's murder and played straight by Harriet and Hely miraculously avoiding snakebites, homicidal drug dealers and drowning.
  • Karma Houdini: Harriet and Hely are never really faced with any consequences for breaking into a house, releasing boxes of venomous snakes, breaking the windows of a car and ultimately intentionally dropping a cobra into a car from an overpass that results in an old lady nearly dying. As in most of Tartt's work, however, the reader is made aware of the intense emotional damage such acts bring to the protagonist.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The entire population of Alexandria seems to make at least one appearance in the book.
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  • Not Evil, Just Misunderstood: The fact that Danny Ratliff turns out to be this is a deeply troubling revelation for Harriet who believes she has brought about his death.
  • Parental Neglect: For most of the novel, Harriet's mother is depressed and functionally useless and her father is entirely absent.
  • Shout-Out: Several literary ones, including the name Tattycorum from Dickens' Little Dorrit.
  • Sidekick: Hely to Harriet.
  • Sinister Minister: Averted. Eugene Ratliff is often thought to be this because of his facial scars but is actually one of the more decent of the Ratliffs.
  • Snake Charmer: Loyal, who is part of a back-woods, snake-handling Christian sect.
  • Summer Campy: Camp Lake de Selby
  • Title Drop: At the very end.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Harriet sometimes, it seems. But especially Danny Ratliff.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Danny Ratliff is prepared to drown Harriet with only a fleeting sense of remorse.
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