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'Big Girl Small': Humiliation, High School Style

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Big Girl Small by Rachel Dewoskin
Big Girl Small
By Rachel DeWoskin
Hardcover, 304 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List Price: $27.99
Read An Excerpt

Don't read this novel if you have teenagers. Or ever were a teenager — especially a teenage girl. It will bring back high school in raw, oozing detail, like a psychic skinned knee. The cliques, the whispers, the glossy girls, the frantic parties, the stupid drinking, the disconnected sexual encounters and, perhaps worst of all, the carnival of lost souls that is the lunchtime cafeteria. High school: a world so hostile to the outsider that even a Navy Seal might hesitate at the threshold.

There's one compelling reason, however, to ignore my warnings about Rachel DeWoskin's new novel, Big Girl Small: the voice of her narrator, Judy Lohden. Judy is 16 — a sarcastic, smart, gutsy and thoughtful incarnation of 16 that any parent would be reassured by. Because, in addition to her other strengths, Judy also possesses a Susan Boyle-sized voice, her loving parents, who own a diner in Ann Arbor, Mich., scrape up the money to transfer her to the Darcy Arts Academy, a private school for the performing arts. When Judy walks into Darcy the first day she says:

"The halls were bulging with kids hugging each other, throwing books into their lockers, slinging on fashionable backpacks, singing, leaping. It was like that old movie Fame ... I felt sick, tried to focus on the student murals my parents had pretended to admire ... The lockers are all painted by students, too ... It's a big competition, of course, and there are stories of the most famous lockers ever, like Sophie Armaria's. She graduated 10 years ago but people still reminisce about how she painted herself naked on her locker, in thick, glistening oil, so that the combination dial was one of her nipples."

Home schooling anyone?

The complication here is that Judy is a "little person" — all of 3 feet, 9 inches tall. In the novel, Judy's size functions as both reality and metaphor. Practically speaking, being a dwarf affects Judy's every social encounter and makes the whole high school ordeal harder; for the average-sized reader, however, Judy's size is an intensified version of the alienation that all of us who were marked as different — by accent, class, weight, acne, sexual preference, shyness, you name it — could identify with.

Rachel DeWoskin titled her 2005 memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing, after the Chinese nighttime soap opera she starred in — about Western women footloose in Beijing.

Rachel DeWoskin titled her 2005 memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing, after the Chinese nighttime soap opera she starred in — about Western women footloose in Beijing. Anne Li hide caption

toggle caption Anne Li

Things seem to go surprisingly well for Judy during her first months at Darcy. She bonds with a couple of other outsider girls: Molly, one of the few African-Americans at the school, and "Goth Sarah," whose dyed, oily black hair and piercings — Judy describes her as looking "riddled by bullets" — mask a sweet personality. Judy lands a showcase part in the fall show and even picks up a boyfriend of sorts, Kyle Malanack, a standard-sized hottie. Maybe her parents' anxious hope that she'd become popular with the rest of the kids — or, as Judy wryly puts it, become "a beloved Lilliputian among the Brobdingnagians," has actually come true.

But, sadly, we readers know it ain't so. We know because Judy is telling us her story retrospectively, in hiding, from a dump called The Motel Manor on the edge of town. The press is looking for her, and so are her parents and friends. Something really, really horrible happened to Judy at Darcy Arts Academy; something that makes this novel's acknowledged forerunner, Stephen King's Carrie, read like a mere drop in the bloody bucket of teen humiliation.

Big Girl Small is not flawless. Just as Judy can't imagine a life beyond her current miserable state of suspended animation at The Motel Manor, DeWoskin can't seem to figure out how to give her novel an ending that's of a piece with Judy's harsh experiences and her resilient response to them. The ending that DeWoskin supplies here is too pat. But, apart from that disappointment, Big Girl Small is a distinctive addition to the already packed cosmic library of coming-of-age stories. As DeWoskin's novel wistfully reminds us, the destruction-of-innocence plot never gets worn out because the ways in which innocence can be destroyed are apparently infinite.

Excerpt: Big Girl Small

Big Girl Small by Rachel Dewoskin
Big Girl Small
By Rachel DeWoskin
Hardcover, 304 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List Price: $27.99

When people make you feel small, it means they shrink you down close to nothing, diminish you, make you feel like shit. In fact, small and shit are like equivalent words in English. It makes sense, in a way. Not that small and shit are the same, I mean, but that Americans might think that. Take The Wizard of Oz, for example, an American classic everyone loves more than anything even though there's a whole "Munchkinland" of embarrassed people, half of them dressed in pink rompers and licking lollipops even though they're thirty years old. They don't even have names in the credits; it just says at the end, "Munchkins played by 'The Singer Midgets.'" Judy Garland apparently loved gay people, was even something of an activist, but she spread rumors about how the "midgets" were so raucous, fucking each other all the time and drinking bourbon on the set. People love those stories because it's so much fun to think of tiny people having sex. There was even an urban myth about how one of the dwarfs hanged himself — everyone said you could see him swinging in the back of the shot — but it turns out it was actually an emu. Right. A bird they got to make the forest look "magical." And what with the five-inch TVs everyone had in those days, the two-pixel bird spreading its dirty wings apparently called to mind a dead dwarf. In other words, people wanted it bad enough to believe that's what it was. Magical, my ass. I know that small and shit are the same because

I'm sixteen years old and three feet nine inches tall.

Judy Garland was sixteen too, when she made Wizard of Oz, but I'm betting she must have felt like she was nine feet tall, getting to be a movie star and all. I should have known better than to try for stardom myself, because even though my mom sang me "Thumbelina" every night of my life, she also took me to Saturday Night Live once when we were in New York on a family vacation, and it happened that the night I was there they had dozens of little people falling off choral risers as one of their skits. My mom almost died of horror, weeping in the audience. Everyone around us thought she was touched, that all those idiots on stage must have been, like, her other kids. Like they were my beautiful Munchkin brothers or something, even though my mom's average- size and so are my two brothers. They'd even have average lives, if only they didn't have me. My mother's idea has always been to try to make me feel close to perfect, but how close can that be, considering I look like she snatched me from some dollhouse.

Nothing on Saturday Night Live is ever funny, but the night we went was especially bad. One of the little people even got hurt falling off those risers, but no one thought anything of it, except my mom, who made a point of waiting for an hour after the show was done, to ask was he okay. I was furious, because everyone who walked by us kept saying "Good show" to me.

I would never be in anything of the sort, by the way, because my parents don't believe in circus humiliation. That's what my college essay was going to be on, freak shows and the Hottentot Venus. Most people don't know that much about her, except that she was famous for having a butt so big the Victorians couldn't believe it. So they made her into an attraction people could pay money to stare at and grope. I bet you didn't know, for example, that her name was Saartjie, or "Little Sarah," or that she even had a name. The "Little" in her name is the cute, endearing version of the word, not the literal little. Or even worse, belittle, which, by combining be and little, means "to make fun of." I think I would have included that definition as, like, the denouement of my essay, after the climax, where I planned to mention that after her nightmare carnival life, Little Sarah died at twenty-six and they preserved her ass on display in a Paris museum. She was orphaned in a commando raid in South Africa; otherwise maybe none of those terrible things would have happened to her.

I have parents, thankfully. And they always tried to keep me private. I don't mean they hid me in a closet or anything, but they also didn't let people take pictures of me when we traveled or touch me for money. And when people stared, even kids, my parents stared back, unblinking, but friendly-like. The thing is, you can't blame kids for staring. Not only because I'm miniature, but also because I'm a little bit "disproportionate." That's what they call it when the fit of your parts is in any way off the mainstream chart: "disproportionate." Maybe your arms or legs are too stumpy or your torso is small and your head is huge. Or maybe you're just you, like Saartjie Hottentot, and it's only relative to everyone else that you're disproportionate. Maybe someday they'll think disproportionate dwarf is a rude expression and they'll come up with a nicer way to put it. I think most people know now that Hottentot is considered a rude word. Maybe not, though. Most people are stupid as hell when it comes to things like which words are rude. And a lot of people, even once they find out which words hurt people, still like to use them. They think it's smarmy and "PC" to have to say things kindly, or that it's too much pressure not to be able to punish freaks with words like freak.

Excerpted from Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin. Copyright 2011 by Rachel DeWoskin. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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