- Big & Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies by Lynne Vallone
Lynne Vallone's Big & Small is a pleasurable and provocative study. The book's main strengths are its coherent methodology and encyclopedic evidence. It argues that size "informs human identity and culture—as do race, gender,and class" (1). Vallone suggests that size is a cultural construct—based on the "human measure" she defines in the afterword—that influences the social interactions constituting human experience. As the title suggests, the book is divided into two volumes, big and small (though these topics are transposed in the text), and is "concerned with bodies both imaginary and real: thumblings, dwarfs, pygmies, giants, children, robots, and the obese" (4). One of the book's many triumphs is the co-mingling of fictional and nonfictional subjects, which vitalizes historical anecdotes and grounds children's literature in reality. The imaginary characters and environments that Vallone introduces, in other words, become crucial records for understanding the cultural impact of size.
The individual chapters offer a wide array of evidence to support the book's central claim that size "informs our everyday thoughts and actions" (257). Vallone is especially adept at grounding her study in historical subjects and events. Her discussion of the homunculus in chapter 1, which includes analyses of Gulliver's Travels and Tristram Shandy, is particularly illuminating. [End Page 353] Readers will also be struck by the creativity and nuance of chapter 5, which argues that the Depression-era mechanical body functions as a "symbol of scientific utopianism" (189). In addition, real subjects, such as Tom Thumb and Ota Benga, are treated with precision and care. Vallone observes that Benga's "literary afterlife symbolizes the obsession with the miniature—in particular,the racialized miniature—that constructs a powerful motif traceable in Anglo-American children's adventure stories from the 1920s forward" (143). It is clear that Vallone not only respects her subjects, both real and imaginary, but also hopes to give them a voice to speak for others who have shared aspects of their experience. However, the primary aim of the book is to encourage readers of all sizes to see the world differently. Representations of big and small in children's literature lead us "to insights and knowledge about the world and ourselves" (181).
Vallone's readings of children's literature are rich and diverse. She analyzes a wide variety of texts and weaves them seamlessly into contextual events. Yet the attention to less-recognized texts might signal, for some readers, the sacrifice of more storied narratives. Lewis Carroll's Alice books, for example, play no role in the book, though Alice struggles in Wonderland with being both big and small. (This absence is particularly troubling in chapter 6, "The Obese Girl.") And Mary Shelley's Frankenstein receives only passing remarks regarding the creature's monstrosity; that he is of "gigantic stature" (Shelley 32) is an important facet of the fear that he inspires. Similarly, the discussion of mechanical bodies, which "can be built as a better body" (Vallone 192; orig. emphasis), could have been informed by Frankenstein's creature, initially conceived to "banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!" (Shelley 22). Readers might be frustrated by other curious exclusions, especially those pop-cultural. Mention is made of the half-giant Hagrid in the Harry Potter books, but Vallone ignores small subjects such as Dobby the house-elf in J. K. Rowling's fantasy series. In addition, she refers to the 1992 film Honey, I Blew Up the Kid but ignores the earlier Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). And Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf protagonist of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (1996–present) is cited, while Gregor "the Mountain" Clegane and even Brienne of Tarth go unmentioned. These are minor quibbles, of course, none of which distracts from the otherwise excellent references that Vallone thoughtfully gathers.
Big & Small is expansive, stretching across centuries, geographies, and genres. Yet it is also remarkably accessible. Vallone's...