Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dwarf Mania?

Image courtesy: Boston Public Library

Dwarfs are not common—about 1 in a 40,000 births. (The preferred term today is 'Little People' if you meet one.) Yet I’ve read three books this year, none of which are fantasy Ă  la Tolkien, that feature dwarfs. In fact, all three were historical novels. Is this remarkable? A new fad? Or just one of those strange coincidences?

The first was Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief. The young hero, Ren, is staying at a widow’s lodging house when something drops down from the chimney. Not a squirrel or a bird or even a raccoon. No, it’s a dwarf. Ms. Tinti explained that the house she grew up in had many chimneys and animals often fell down them. She deliberately chose something shocking to pop out of the chimney in her novel and later had to 'fit' her choice into the storyline. The reader eventually discovers this fellow is the landlady’s brother. He sneaks down the chimney to eat his supper each night and leaves a wooden carving as a gift.

In Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, the presence of a dwarf is no surprise at all considering the story’s setting is a traveling circus. The diminutive character here starts out as a rather surly man whose only redeming quality is the tender way he takes care of his small dog. Later the novel's hero befriends the dwarf. Just when the reader has gotten good and attached to the character, the dwarf and his dog are flung from the train to their deaths by the evil circus owner. (I'm still not over it.)

So I know why these two feature dwarfs, but the third is less clear. In Robert Hicks’ A Separate Country the dwarf Rintrah is an orphan raised by nuns who eventually becomes the equivalent of an Italian mob boss with a strong streak of philanthropy toward the downtrodden black population of New Orleans. Why would Hicks choose this unusual character to be a dwarf? Perhaps it’s not so strange. People with achondroplastic dwarfism are a blend of normal sized heads and torsos with short arms and legs—a physical manifestation of the strange duality of his actions—murderer to some, savior to others.

All things considered, a dwarf is not such a strange choice after all. Giving a character such an unusual condition will cement them in the reader’s mind—much more memorably than someone who is unusually good-looking, or clumsy, or shy. I should also note that each book balances these Little People with a giant-sized character, though in Water For Elephants, that character has a trunk.

So have you run across dwarfs or other characters with rare traits in your reading?


  1. The last case is interesting! I never really thought about dwarves in literature or any symbolism that might have. Great post!

  2. I typed in 'dwarf' in Amazon's search engine for books and the list was over twenty. I was surprised to see A Prayer for Owen Meany in the list. I knew that the character was unusually short, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't a dwarf.

  3. I haven't come across dwarfs in any recent books. It is interesting to imprint a character in the reader's mind with a condition, though.

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