by Aga Maksimowska
Pedlar Press, 2012
Before she is even 11 years old, Gosia stands 169 centimetres tall (5′ 7″). She is tall for her age, but she sees herself as giant—a larger than normal freak who doesn’t fit in anywhere. After her mother, a university teacher, moves to Canada in search of greater opportunity, Gosia and her younger (normal-sized) sister remain for a time in the care of their grandparents in bleak Soviet-era housing in Gdansk, Poland. Their father works at sea and is seldom home. The grandparents do their best, when Communist connections, alcohol or violence don’t get in the way.
When the girls move to Canada to join their mother, fitting in doesn’t get any easier. Gosia is large, and she doesn’t speak English. Having encountered the obstacles that immigrants face, her mother is not a teacher, but rather a house cleaner and secretary, and she has a new man in her life demanding attention. Gosia’s pre-teen feelings of exile continue.
Gosia’s honest narration of her struggle with body image, her ache for loving parents, and her efforts to establish an identity while being pulled between two countries makes for compelling reading. When this 11-year-old immigrant looks at Canada through fresh eyes, it teaches us a little about our country and shakes some of our assumptions. And when Gosia returns to Poland at age 19 and looks at that country through fresh eyes, she learns a little more about it, and herself, and shakes some of her assumptions. She meets an old neighbour who tells her, “You’ve really grown into that body of yours. What a beautiful young woman you are.” And sleeping on the small couch she used to share with her grandmother, she thinks, “Maybe I wasn’t as big as I always thought.”
By age 19, Gosia has come through teenage angst and realized how it skewed her perception of body image. Her self-esteem has grown while her body has stopped growing. In the end, the turmoil of exile has shaped a strong young woman who is all the more rooted for having been uprooted.
Giant is a Polish story, a Canadian story, an immigration story, a parenting story, and a female story. It tugs beautifully on a lot of different heart-strings.