Once upon a time there was a six-foot-tall girl...no, this isn't that kind of story. A more realistic fable for a more afflicted age, Andrea Koenig's Thumbelina has only ironic ties to the eponymous Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. The title character here is a gawky 14-year-old girl whose blistering self-image emerges within the novel's opening sentences: "I got a big old head that's too far from my feet but there's nothing I can do about it. On my head I got yellow hair that looks like pee and hangs down into the back pockets of my jeans." Yet despite her lack of self-esteem, the confidence that underlies Thumbelina's matter-of-fact voice as she narrates her tale of woe makes this novel the most captivating story of a young orphan since Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster.
This strength of voice, in fact, carries the novel, as the plot itself is thin and mostly predictable. As the novel opens, Thumbelina's single mother has just committed suicide by driving a friend's Corvette into a local pond. In flashbacks that build the mother's character, we learn about the slights that may have driven her to take her own life. This artful backstory dovetails with Thumbelina's picaresque journey in the succeeding nine months to create an in-depth portrait of the teen, one unusually free of coming-of-age clichés. That time span is more than a symbolic gestation period, as well. Thumbelina is in fact pregnant by her mother's abusive lover, who is bisexual and has passed HIV to our narrator.
Within the context of this plangent domestic scenario, Thumbelina delivers small gems of expression on nearly every page. Setting the scene in "those dirty yellow apartment buildings in Tacoma," she notes, "We were the orange curtains right above the American flag." It's a flag she's "sure to miss" when she empties a shoe full of piss out of her bedroom window. Thumbelina may "try to travel through life incognito," but as she calls the baby inside her "my fish," dreams of playing cards in her mother's coffin, finds true solace in Betty and Veronica comics, and sings Johnny Cash tunes as the soundtrack to her existence, she is one of the most fully realized characters to appear in quite some time.
Thumbelina's eventual treatment by a weary yet sympathetic cabal of socially conscious doctors, and her effort to find an adoptive family for her potentially HIV-infected baby, provide some of the most moving scenes in the book. But it's her unwitting partnership with Myrna, another child of the streets, and their various stints as schoolchildren, squatters, and strippers that make up the guts of this beautifully rendered story. In less nimble hands, such subject matter could have turned this novel into a preachy disaster, but Koenig's finger wisely stays on the pulse of her main character. From its aphoristic epigraph ("Tell me whom you love, and I will tell you who you are") to its why'd-she-have-to-do-it ending, Thumbelina is a solid debut.