This review and summary of Little, Big by author John Crowley was adapted from two previous posts. First is the spoiler free review, followed by the spoiler full review and summary.
Spoiler Free Review
I’m calling Little, Big an American fantasy novel simply because it needs it’s own genre. It’s closest to fantasy but it’s not hard fantasy with magic wands or full shapeshifters. It’s more like magical realism but the magic isn’t accidental or incidental.
It’s fantasy set in the early 1900s in anywhere middle America. It delves into the dichotomy of the little town verses the big city but does not linger there. The setting is largely symbolic and purposefully non-specific.
So is any use of magic, protections, curses, changelings, fairies, interdimensional travel, or any other strange fantasy-esque doings. Little, Big makes its own rules and runs its own genre defying plots wherever it pleases.
The book follows the entire history of the Drinkwater family starting with Smoky and Daily Alice but going to her previous ancestor Violet as well as her offspring Auberon and the last generation before the end of what they refer to as The Tale.
We see how the family started with a woman named Violet who can access the magic that the world has to offer but few others can use. We see how the family ends under the guidance of a long lost child who mysteriously vanished shortly after her birth.
Characters have complex histories with each other and the story bounces back and forth along a timeline with very little notice or pretense. Simply put, this story is complicated.
I enjoyed trying to decipher the layers of symbolism even if I sometimes fell short of fully understanding what Crowley was going for. At times it is clear that this book was written during a different era than my own.
The novel feels like the kind of book I would have read back in school around the same time we were reading all of the other great white male authors of early Americana. I would love to see Little, Big on a curriculum alongside Faulker, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. He would fit right in and Little, Big is far more interesting than many of the other classics that are traditionally taught. I mean, this one has people who can talk to animals!
Little, Big cries out for discussion. It needs to be dissected to be understood. It is not a surface level book and I believe that many readers will have many different interpretations of the events that unfold. If you’ve read it please tell me yours!
Little, Big Summary
Little, Big defies genre. I’m calling it an American fantasy novel simply because that’s the closest definition I can think of. It reads as if Steinbeck wrote a fantasy. It’s very middle America but has many elements of fantasy or magical realism.
Some characters can talk to animals. Some cannot. Some characters can travel at will into other universes or dimensions within our own. Most cannot. Timelines are distorted and death is impermanent. At least one character can become invisible and many characters may also be other characters in a different timeline or lifespan.
With all of that going on this is going to be a difficult book to summarize. Please bear with me as I do my very best. I may get a couple of things confused, I may interpret things differently than other readers, and I will definitely leave some stuff out. Forgive me for these indiscretions I’m just a hobbyist.
Also keep in mind that I liked this book even when it was frustrating or confusing to read. Even though it took me four times as long to read it as many other books of the same length I would still recommend it to most readers. With all of this in mind, let’s get started.
Little, Big first introduces us to Smoky, a Midwestern high school drop out who taught himself everything he needed to know to become a proofreader. He meets a young woman by the name of Daily Alice Drinkwater and the two fall in love at first sight.
She is a rural farmer’s daughter who lives in an isolated area by the name of Edgewood with her family. In order to bring Smoky into the family he must journey to them by way of odd rules and highly specific directions.
He follows the letter she sent him outlining the bizarre instructions including not paying for a place to stay overnight on the journey and makes it to Edgewood to claim his bride.
As he is journeying the reader discovers that Daily Alice can talk to animals, as can many others in her family. It is at this point in the book it is clear that this is not your typical Midwestern hero’s journey saga. It discusses magic in a very mundane way. The ability to converse with animals is commonplace for this family. It’s an ability passed down the generations just as any other genetic ability would be.
The book also discusses spirituality and religion in a different manner than many readers may be used to. Daily Alice’s family is highly spiritual but not traditionally religious. They would not consider themselves any pre-existing label such as Christian or even Pagan. They simply have their ways they know the universe to behave.
Daily Alice’s Great Aunt Cloud is somewhat of a psychic and uses cards, presumably a variation of tarot, to see what is destined. There is much discussion of fate and destiny in this book in which the characters refer to their own story as The Tale. The Tale is what is bound to happen and it is their duty to see it through.
As Smoky begins to integrate with the Drinkwater family he discusses how he is neither religious nor spiritual and doesn’t seem to understand all the talk of cards and fate. He also doesn’t understand what they mean when they say the family is “protected.”
We then get a slight explanation of the hierarchy of the universes. It is briefly explained that there are interconnected circles of dimensions that some people can travel through with increasingly smaller doors as one progresses. Some people can use the magic to get as far as seeing fairies while most only may go through one door and see hints of ghosts.
With this explanation we are introduced to Violet Bramble, an ancestor of the Drinkwater family who is capable of traveling through these doors at will. We travel backward on the timeline to see that she is pregnant with her first child out of wedlock.
Back in the present, at least what is the present at this point in the book, Smoky and Daily Alice are wed and Daily Alice’s sister Sophie becomes very jealous.
Smoky and Daily Alice begin a post wedding journey to an unknown location. Along the way they get separated in the woods and Smoky stumbles upon the Woods’ residence.
Last names in this book are often strange and can be taken literally or figuratively.
Smoky enters the residence to find that they’ve been waiting for him. Smoky explains that Daily Alice gave him her childhood as a wedding present but he doesn’t believe he’s compatible with it because he doesn’t believe in fairies. Mr. Woods says he just needs a bag in which to carry it so he gives Smoky a bag and pushes him through a wardrobe back into the woods where Daily Alice is conveniently standing.
This weird little plot point pretty much sums up the style of the novel. It takes something mystical and states it as a simple fact. There is no whimsy to the fantasy here.
We then go back in time again to Violet at the time of her husband’s death. John Drinkwater, also the name of Daily Alice’s father but not the same John Drinkwater, has passed and Violet is beside herself. Her hair turns white and she isolates herself dramatically.
Her son August, who can talk to animals, goes fishing and asks a bird there is he can build a Ford Dealership. The bird says sure, why not, I don’t care, do what you want and then asks if he wants anything more mystical from him. The bird offers him power over women in exchange for the family’s tarot cards.
August steals the cards and is granted love powers. These powers cause him to form many new branches on this already muddled family tree. He’s the beginning of the less protected family lines and has lowered the family’s protection by giving up the cards.
Now we flash forward to past the previous present to a new present in which Smoky is a teacher and Daily Alice is pregnant with their second child.
A family cousin named George Mouse comes to visit Smoky and Daily Alice while he’s tripping on some kind of home grown hallucinogen. Daily Alice awakens to be unsure of if she dreamt her and George had sex or if they actually had sex and George sees Smoky leaving Sophie’s room in the middle of the night.
Turns out that Smoky has been having an affair with Sophie and Daily Alice is away of it but elects not to say anything. Sophie becomes pregnant and tells everyone it’s Smoky’s child but tells Daily Alice that it’s actually George’s.
Further into the timeline we start following an adult by the name of Auberon. Named after Daily Alice’s uncle and is the son of either Smoky or George, he is unsure.
Auberon has traveled from Edgewood to the city to seek his fortune. He makes friends with a black man named Fred Savage and here is where the book seems a bit dated.
Fred Savage’s dialogue is written phonetically in a way that would be considered racist today. Additionally he falls into the trope of being a “magical negro.” Please forgive me, I didn’t make up the name of the cliche. It’s a problem we have in American books and cinema in which a black character shows up to wisely guide the white hero along their journey. They often have special insight and some kind of mystical powers. Basically, think of John Coffey in The Green Mile.
Fred Savage appears spontaneously at a few key points in the book to help guide Auberon to the end of The Tale.
Auberon is staying at George Mouse’s place and a Puerto Rican woman named Sylvie arrives one day when George is gone. Her character is also somewhat problematic in that she is considered sexy and exotic simply because she is dark skinned.
But Sylvie arrives on the scene and explains to Auberon that she has a destiny but no place to stay so Auberon offers to share his room with her. When George returns home he is oddly upset and it won’t be until the very end of the book that we find out why. (She’s probably his daughter, there now you don’t have to wait.)
Now go back in time to Auberon’s childhood. He has an imaginary friend named Lilac. This is also the name of Auberon’s younger sister who mysteriously vanished. No one knows how or to where and they don’t talk about it. The imaginary friend and the sister are not the same, don’t you dare think they are!
This is where it starts to get really confusing. We see a Lilac being cared for by a Mrs. Underhill. This may be the real Lilac or a changeling. It may also be a pre-birth Lilac on her way to being conceived. I’m not sure, you tell me!
Myth starts to get intertwined with reality. Lilac may have summoned some old gods. Mrs. Underhill awakens Grandfather Trout, who is a real trout right now, a curse put upon him by… someone. They declare that Auberon should follow his love for Sylvie.
Back to the current present in the main dimension Sylvie gets a job as a winged messenger. What this means exactly I’m not sure.
What I do know is that shortly after she accepts a job Auberon comes home to find that her and all of her possessions are completely gone from their home. There is absolutely no trace that she was ever there or that Auberon will ever see her again.
Back to mythology. A leader by the name of Russel Eigenblick is the resurrected emperor and a magical woman by the name of Hawksquill is telling his story. (She’s the one who can turn invisible.)
Back to Auberon’s present. He comes to the realization that he’s not protected like the rest of the family. He’s cursed. (Likely because of his uncertain parentage.) The curse is lifted by accepting that Sylvie is gone through no fault of his own.
With the curse lifted Lilac appears to him and says that he must return home.
Then we’re on a sidequest with Hawksquill tyring to stealthily find Eigenblick and bring him back to power. She discovers that she is also part of the Drinkwater family tree as the daughter of Violet and another man prior to her marriage to Drinkwater.
This back and forth does start to get confusing but it’s definitely never boring. This book just requires your full attention.
Back to Auberon who is home at Edgewater. The family welcomes him back with enthusiastically open arms. He catches up with his father Smoky over some whisky. They have a hilariously honest conversation in which they both admit that they both don’t understand anything supernatural but thought the other did. They bond over having no clue about fairies and where Lilac actually disappeared to.
Shortly after Auberon returns home George visits to help fill in some information gaps. He tells Auberon the real story of what happened to Lilac and it’s terrifying.
George and Sophie had a one night stand during which Sophie became pregnant but did not tell George. 2 years later she appears on George’s doorstep with a “child” she claims is his. This “child,” Lilac, has obviously been replaced by a malformed changeling. She looks like a small old man.
As George is trying to get Sophie to explain what happened the little old man goes upstairs. George doesn’t want the creature exploring the house so he pulls its arm to get it back downstairs. The arm comes right off and exposes the changeling to be completely hollow and dark inside.
George is understandably freaked out and follows it all the way up the stairs to discover it eating embers straight from the fire place. Just crunching away on the molten pieces and allowing their glow to fill its head like a horrifying, living Jack o’ Lantern.
George knows this creature to be evil so he lures it into his shed where he stores his fireworks (he has a job involving fireworks conveniently). He blows the whole thing straight to hell where this impostor Lilac is clearly from.
To George’s surprise Sophie is completely distraught by him killing this monster as she has not slept since the child was born and truly believed it to be her daughter.
This was my favorite scene in the whole book. It was scary and the descriptions were just so clear! Much of the book can wander and lose focus but this scene narrowed in and didn’t let you go.
Finally, the real Lilac returns and shows herself to Sophie at the foot of her bed. She claims that she stole Sophie’s sleep but doesn’t need it anymore so Sophie can finally rest and Lilac is rested enough to complete her purpose of guiding everyone in the family to the end of The Tale.
She then visits George and Auberon and tells them they need to go to Parliament to find Sylvie and finish The Tale. They need a guide so of course Fred Savage reappears.
Sophie gathers the entire rest of the family back at Edgewood which she now knows to be one of those interdimensional doors. She claims they must all go through the door but that they cannot return.
Daily Alice tells Sophie that it is her fate to go before the rest. Smoky gets an old perpetual motion machine working and claims that since Edgewood will now run forever no one has to leave. Daily Alice goes anyway while Smoky’s back is turned.
I made the easy assumption that this all means death. Smoky is afraid of dying but the Drinkwaters understand it to just be a passing through not a passing on.
As the family prepares for the end of The Tale, Eigenblick shoots Hawksquill and she transforms into a stork. This is her new form of which she has had many others before.
Grandfather Trout is someone. Wikipedia says it’s August but I had the impression is was Sylvie. Regardless, that curse is also now broken.
Smoky still does not want to travel to the next phase so Sophie lies to him and says Lilac is his daughter and he should go for her. Ultimately it is the promise of seeing Daily Alice once again that gets Smoky to travel on.
Sylvie does make an appearance now at Smoky’s funeral. The family is all gathered for his wake which quickly turns into a wedding between Sylvie and Auberon.
The book ends with Edgewood being left empty, the entire family having passed on to the next dimension, world, life, whatever you want to call it. The house is empty but still being powered by the perpetual motion machine that Smoky left running.
This is the end of this tale but it is not the only tale.
I found this ending to be quite lovely and melancholy. We all die in the end but this family all managed to find each other before they went.
There are parts of the book I am still not sure what to make of, basically anything to do with Eigenblick. That all seemed like a metaphor for something that I am out of touch with.
I truly believe that if I were to re-read this book I would enjoy it more and more each time. There is so much to unpack here. So much symbolism to decipher and relationships to untangle.
I really enjoy books that can discuss spirituality without attributing it to a specific theology. Little, Big does a great job of weaving together existing myths and it’s own created reality without ever needing a pre-existing god mythos.
On the surface it is a revolutionary fantasy novel. I wish I had read it in school so that I would have a classroom to discuss it with. Little, Big and John Crowley deserve a place alongside the other great early American novels. Right there next to Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Hemingway. The golden age of old white guy Americana.
It makes me wonder what other forgotten classics I’ve missed out on. This one is definitely underrated and under-known.
4/5 fairies 🧚♀️🧚♀️🧚♀️🧚♀️
If you like more complex literature check out House of Leaves.
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Buy it here: Little, Big