As both a former professional librarian and a writer trained in her craft, Elizabeth McCracken is doubly aware of the need for order. Having spent several years dealing with overdue books and irrational patrons, McCracken is well aware that even with the best of systems, one is frequently faced with irregularities. In her fiction, McCracken emphasizes the fact that in this respect, the larger world is no different from any library. She likes to create characters who defy norms, such as the tattoo artist, the casual levitator, the armless mother, and the various sideshow performers in her short-story collection Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry (1993), and the boy who cannot stop growing in The Giant’s House. McCracken’s focus, however, is less on such characters than on how their presence affects those around them. The more human beings depend on predictable patterns, McCracken suggests, the more they are threatened by the inevitable confrontations with people who do not fit the norms. Often they respond with unfeeling curiosity, even with unconcealed antipathy. Sometimes, however, through these encounters people catch a glimpse of a divine order that is not bound by human limitations. Sometimes, like the librarian in The Giant’s House, they may even be transformed by the experience, forever changed through the redemptive power of love.
Peggy Cort, the narrator and the real protagonist of The Giant’s House, is a small-town librarian who presents herself in somewhat stereotypical terms. At twenty-five, fresh from library school, she has found her identity in her library, much in the same way, she muses, that some women are possessed by their marriages. While she remembers often being overcome by hatred for the library building, which is as inadequate and as undependable as the worst of husbands, she has a peculiar fondness for it, as well as a deep love for the books it contains and the information that can be found in them. Indeed, the happiest moments in her rather prosaic life come when she is asked to find a reference for one of her patrons. For a librarian, Peggy explains, knowledge is the bond between people, and the gift of knowledge is an expression of love.
Unlike everyone else in Brewsterville, who seem aware only of James Carlson Sweatt’s amazing stature, Peggy sees him as exceptional for very different reasons. While other eleven-year-old boys rarely come to the library, he is an avid reader. Moreover, he almost invariably returns his books on time and in good condition, and, best of all, he is one of the few patrons who makes use of Peggy’s skills as a reference librarian. As soon as she recognizes these virtues in James, Peggy is already half in love with him.
Yet when she comes to know him better, Peggy sees that although James may be unique as far as his appearance is concerned, the two of them have even more in common than intellectual curiosity and a passion for books—they are isolated in a small town that only pretends to accept anyone who is different. In Brewsterville, James is viewed not as a human being, but as a freak, while Peggy is seen not as a living, breathing woman, but as a functionary, a useful piece of furniture, as she comments with some bitterness.
James and Peggy are alike in another way, too. Both of them have the capacity for love. By nature, James is kindly and unassuming; Peggy, on the other hand, is initially a bit waspish, but eventually her passion for James leaves no room for any unworthy feelings. In the second part of the novel, although Peggy still has her position at the library, she is devoting most of her energy to James’s welfare. By the time he is seventeen, James is too large to fit into the furniture used by ordinary people, and it is obvious that he can no longer stay inside the house of his aunt, Caroline Strickland, and her kind-hearted husband Oscar, with whom Mrs. Sweatt and James have made their home ever since they were abandoned. It is Peggy who spearheads a drive for money to build a cottage for James behind the Stricklands’ house, and, once he is installed in it, Peggy spends all of her spare time there. Although by now she knows that she is helplessly in love with him, she is not possessive. She encourages high school friends to stop by, and she even tries to supply him with a girlfriend of his own age. She also modifies her car so that she can take him on trips, including one to the wedding of the girl with whom she had tried to involve him and another to New York. Once in New York City, James stays at the Astor, appears in Madison Square Garden, and hurts Peggy’s feelings by flirting with another exception to the human rule, a woman billed as the smallest...