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  • Written by Elizabeth McCracken
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  • Written by Elizabeth McCracken
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A Romance

Written by Elizabeth McCrackenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Elizabeth McCracken


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: February 13, 2013
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-83348-8
Published by : The Dial Press Random House Group
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The year is 1950, and in a small town on Cape Cod twenty-six-year-old librarian Peggy Cort feels like love and life have stood her up. Until the day James Carlson Sweatt–the “over-tall” eleven-year-old boy who’s the talk of the town–walks into her library and changes her life forever. Two misfits whose lonely paths cross at the circulation desk, Peggy and James are odd candidates for friendship, but nevertheless they soon find their lives entwined in ways that neither one could have predicted. In James, Peggy discovers the one person who’s ever really understood her, and as he grows–six foot five at age twelve, then seven feet, then eight–so does her heart and their most singular romance.


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I do not love mankind.

People think they're interesting.  That's their first mistake.  Every retiree you meet wants to supply you with his life story.

An example: thirty-five years ago a woman came into the library.  She'd just heard about oral histories, and wanted to string one together herself.

"We have so many wonderful old people around," she said.  "They have such wonderful stories.  We could capture them on tape, then maybe transcribe them. Don't you think that would make a wonderful record of the area? My father, for instance, is in a nursing home—"

Her father, of course.  She was not interested in the past, but her past.

"If I wanted to listen to old people nattering on," I told her, "I would ride a Greyhound bus across country.  Such things get boring rather quickly, don't they."

The woman looked at me with the same smile she'd had on the entire conversation.  She laughed experimentally.

"Oh Miss Cort," she said.  "Surely you didn't mean that."

"I did and I do," I answered.  My reputation even thirty-five years ago was already so spoiled there was no saving it.  "I really don't see the point, do you?"

I felt that if those old people had some essential information they should write it down themselves.  A life story can make adequate conversation but bad history.

Still, there you are in a nursing home, bored and lonely, and one day something different happens.  Instead of a gang of school kids come to bellow Christmas carols at you, there's this earnest young person with the tape recorder, wanting to know about a flood sixty years ago, or what Main Street was like, or some such nonsense.  All the other people in the home are sick to death of hearing your stories, because really let's be honest
you only have a few.

Suddenly there's a microphone in your face.  Wham! Just like that, you're no longer a dull conversationalist, you're a natural resource.

Back then I thought, if you go around trying to rescue every fact or turn of phrase, you would never stop, you would eavesdrop until your fingers ached from playing the black keys of your tape recorder, until the batteries had gasped their last and the tape came to its end and thunked the machine off, no more, and still you would not have made a dent on the small talk of the world.  People are always downstairs, talking without you.  They gather in front of stores, run into each other at restaurants, and talk.  They clump together at parties or couple up at the dinner table.  They organize themselves by profession (for instance, waitresses), or by quality of looks or by hobby, or companion (in the case of dog owners and married people), or by sexual preference or weight or social ease, and they talk.

Imagine what there is to collect: every exchange between a customer and a grocery store clerk, wrong numbers, awful baby talk to a puppy on the street, what people yell back at the radio, the sound the teenage boy outside my window makes when he catches the basketball with both his hands and his stomach, every oh lord said at church or in bed or standing up from a chair.  Thank you, hey watch it, gesundheit, who's a good boy, sweetness, how much? I love your dress.

An Anthology of Common Conversation.  Already I can tell you it will be incomplete.  In reference works, as in sin, omission is as bad as willfull misbehavior.  All those words go around and end up nowhere; your fondest wishes won't save them.  No need to be a packrat of palaver anyhow.  Best to stick with recorded history.

Now, of course, I am as guilty as anyone, and this book is the evidence.  I'm worse; I know my details by heart, no interviews necessary.  No one has asked me a question yet, but I will not shut up.

Peggy Cort is crazy, anyone will tell you so.  That lady who wanted to record the town's elders, the children who visited the library, my co-workers, every last soul in this town.  The only person who ever thought I wasn't is dead; he is the subject of this memoir.  

Let me stop.  History is chronological, at least this one is.  Some women become librarians because they love order; I'm one.  Ordinal, cardinal, alphabetical, alphanumerical, geographical, by subject, by color, by shape, by size.  Something logical that people—one hopes—cannot botch, although they will.

This isn't my story.

Let me start again.

I do not love mankind, but he was different.

He was a redhead as a child.

You won't hear that from most people.  Most people won't care.  But he had pretty strawberry blond hair.  If he'd been out in the sun more, it would have been streaked gold.

He first came into my library in the fall of 1950, when he was eleven.  Some teacher from the elementary school brought them all trooping in; I was behind the desk, putting a cart of fiction in order.  I thought at first he was a second teacher, he was so much taller than the rest, tall even for a grown man.  Then I noticed the chinos and white bucks and saw that this was the over-tall boy I'd heard about.  Once I realized, I could see my mistake; though he would eventually develop cheekbones and whiskers, now he was pale and slightly babyfaced.  He wasn't the tallest man in the world then, just a remarkably tall boy.  Doctors had not yet prescribed glasses, and he squinted at faraway objects in a heroic way, as if they were new countries waiting to be discovered.

"This is Miss Cort," the teacher said, gesturing at me.  "Ask her any question you want.  She is here to help you.  That is what librarians do."

She showed them the dusty oak card catalog, the dusty stacks, the circulation desk I spent hours keeping free of dust. In short, she terrified them.

"Fiction is on the third floor," she said.  "And biography is on the second." I recognized her; she read Georgette Heyer and biographies of royalty and returned books so saturated with cigarette smoke I imagined she exhaled over each page on purpose.  I wanted to stand by the exit to whisper in every eleven-year-old ear, Just come back.  Come back by yourself and we'll forget all about this.

At the end of the visit, the tall boy came up to talk.  He seemed studious, though studious is too often the word we give to quiet odd people.

"I want a book," he said, "about being a magician."

"What sort of magician?" I said.  "Like Merlin?" Recently a teacher had read aloud from The Sword and the Stone, and they all wanted more stories.

"No," he said.  He put his hands on the circulation desk.  His fingernails were cleaner than an ordinary eleven-year-old's; his mother was then still alive. "Just tricks," he said.  "I want to make things look like they disappear.  I looked in the card catalog under magic, but I didn't find anything."

"Try 'conjuring,'" I told him.

We found only one book, an oversized skinny volume called Magic for Boys and Girls.  He took it to a table in the front room.  He wasn't clumsy, as you might expect, but terribly delicate.  His hands were large, out of proportion even with his big body, and he had to use them delicately to accomplish anything at all.

I watched his narrow back as he read the book.  After an hour I walked over.

"Is that the sort of thing you wanted?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, not looking at me.  The book was opened flat on the table in front of him, and he worked his hands in the air according to the instructions, without any props.  His fingers kept slowly snatching at nothing, as if he had already made dozens of things disappear, rabbits and cards and rubber balls and bouquets of paper flowers, and had done this so brilliantly even he could not bring them back.

I may be adding things.  It's been years now, and nearly every day I dream up hours and meetings with James Carlson Sweatt.  I am a librarian, and you cannot stop me from annotating, revising, updating.  I like to think that—because I am a librarian—I offer accurate and spurious with no judgment, good and bad next to each other on the shelf.  But my memories are not books.  Blessing if they were.  Then maybe someone would borrow one and keep it too long and return it, a little battered, offering money for my forgiveness, each memory new after its long absence.

My memories are not books.  They are only stories that I have been over so many times in my head that I don't know from one day to the next what's remembered and what's made up.  Like when you memorize a poem, and for one small unimportant part you supply your own words.  The meaning's the same, the meter's identical.  When you read the actual version you can never get it into your head that it's right and you're wrong.

What I give you is the day's edition.  Tomorrow it may be different.
Elizabeth McCracken

About Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken - The Giant's House
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, The Giant’s House, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, and Niagara Falls All Over Again. A former public librarian, she is now a faculty member at the University of Texas, Austin, and has received grants and awards from numerous organizations, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the American Academy in Berlin. Elizabeth is married to the novelist and illustrator Edward Carey.


“Remarkable…McCracken has wit and subtlety to burn, as well as an uncanny ability to tap into the sadness that runs through the center of her characters’ worlds. This book is so lovely that, when you’re reading, you’ll want to sleep with it under your pillow.” —Salon.com

“McCracken mixes the proper amount of lunacy with exactly the right amount of sorrow. The blend is reminiscent of such late-20th-century treasures as The Accidental Tourist, The World According to Garp, or A Confederacy of Dunces.”—Denver Post

A true marvel…thoroughly enjoyable from its unlikely beginning to its bittersweet end…McCracken knows all kinds of subtle, enticing secrets of the heart and conveys them in silky, transparent language.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Lovely…a tribute to the quiet passion of people trapped in isolation.” —Los Angeles Times

“Fascinating…The reader finds herself entangled, body and soul, in this tender and endlessly strange novel, which is in all senses a hymn to human growth gone haywire and to a love so big it can’t hold its own magnificent limbs upright.”—Elle

“Such is the incantatory power of McCracken’s eccentric tale that by its close we are completely in the grip of its strangely conceived ardor.... McCracken is as original a writer as they come.... I fell in love.”—Daphne Merkin, The New Yorker

“McCracken is a true romantic, not the sloppy, gushy kind who lie to themselves, but the robust, ferocious romantic who sees reality with all its chinks, twitches, and zits, and finds it beautiful.”—Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love

“Highly recommended ... eloquent and hauntingly beautiful ... This is a terrific novel, and McCracken is definitely a writer to watch.”—Library Journal
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The year is 1950. Peggy Cort, a librarian in a small Cape Cod town, is 26 and has begun to fear that she will live her life without ever experiencing love's transforming power. Until she meets James, 11 years old, six foot four, and still growing. Quietly heroic about his predicament, James checks out books on conjuring and gigantism, and they soon find their lives entwined in ways that neither of them could have predicted. In James, Peggy discovers the one person suited to encompass her love, and as he grows—six foot five at age 12, then seven feet, then eight—so does her heart and their most singular romance. This stunning first novel was a finalist for a National Book Award in Fiction in 1996.

Discussion Guides

1. Elizabeth McCracken subtitles her book "A Romance." Why does she use this term? Does she mean it literally, or ironically? In what ways does the novel depart from the kind of story that is usually classified as romance?

2. Peggy begins her story with the sentence, "I do not love mankind." Do you believe this statement to be true? Do you find Peggy's real character to be different from the character she tries to present to the reader?

3. Why has Peggy chosen to be a librarian? What aspects of the work conform with her own character and predilections?

4. What are the reasons for Mrs. Sweatt's deep sadness? What differences, and what similarities, exist between Mrs. Sweatt and Peggy? What does Peggy mean when she says "We are the truly sad" (p. 67)? Do you believe that Mrs. Sweatt's overdose was deliberate?

5. Peggy calls herself "an unimaginative woman" (p. 106). Do you find this to be true? If not, why does she make such a claim? What roles do imagination and fantasy play in her life?

6. How do you interpret James's feelings for Stella? Does he fall in love with her? If so, what kind of love is it, and how does it compare with the kind of passion Peggy feels for him?

7. What is the significance of Rocket Bride in the story? Why does Rocket Bride, halfway through the novel, acquire a baby? What relation does Rocket Bride bear, not only to Mrs. Sweatt, but to Peggy herself?

8. How does James's character change and develop during the course of the novel? How do his feelings about his size, and his strange plight, readjust themselves? What effect, if any, does Patty Flood have upon James's outlook?

9. How do strangers, and even friends, react to James's size? Is anyone, including Peggy, able to forget his height for a moment? What do their reactions say about our feelings for the abnormal? Why do circus freaks continue to exert a fascination upon us?

10. Is Dr. Calloway's "Giantism: Report of a Case" an accurate or scientific study? In what ways does it present a false picture of James? What does this report say about Dr. Calloway's own character? What does it imply about the nature of scientific observation?

11. Peggy says that the act of giving oneself to others, of existing for other people, is "a selfishness.” Is this true? Are Peggy's many "unselfish" acts in actuality an expression of selfishness?

12. "By now," Peggy says at the end of her story, "you are tired of me insisting, but it wasn't sex.” (p. 223) To what extent in fact was, or was not, her passion for James a sexual one? Is it possible entirely to separate sex and love?

13. How would you describe Peggy's motivations for her sexual encounter with Calvin Sweatt? Do you believe, as she does, that subconsciously she wanted James's child? Given a chance, might she have grown to love Calvin himself?

14. Peggy says that she and James had "a true, real marriage" (p. 259), and states that they loved one another. Do you believe that James loved Peggy in the same way that she loved him? Do you think that he was "in love"? Was he drawn to her, or did he simply come to feel affection, and to accept her presence?

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