Next to nothing is known about the young Gert, or Gertie, Bigger, other than that as a teenager around the turn of the century she had a crush on a boy named Mordecai Hunks. Hunks was also being wooed by a then eighteen-year old Florence Zimmermann who eventually won Hunks over, if only for a few weeks or months. This alienated Bigger, who held a life-long grudge on the woman she felt ruined her life.
Her life after Hunks appears to have been fairly miserable and though she eventually did marry, she noted, "the old fool I was married to used to beat me (Letter, 153)." It is unclear whether Bigger was her maiden name or the name of her abusive husband, who's own history is also unknown.
Feeling of hatred and revenge danced in her mind over the years, eventually turning to witchcraft as a way to find her own twisted solace. Retreating to libraries in Ellis Corners and other surrounding communities, she checked out every book she could find on the subject, sometimes sitting for hours in reference rooms with books that couldn't be removed from the premises, and always keeping books she checked-out well past their due date. She finally found a way out of her dead-end life via her neighbor, Oley Gunderson - Zimmermann's cousin. Gunderson had found a small ring on his farm, bragging to his neighbor how he felt it was a magical talisman. Once Gunderson was dead, Bigger stole the ring and began learning its power: transformation, invisibility, teleportation, and the ability to summon Asmodai and grant any wish.
The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring
Gunderson's death brought Zimmermann - and her friend, Rose Rita Pottinger - back to her old stomping grounds and slowly she became victim of Bigger's experiments with the ring. Believing the ring is now the famed Ring of Solomon, Bigger startles Zimmermann with old pictures of her and Hunks, mysteriously appears in bedrooms and in the back of cars, and uses its shape shifting capabilities to spy on - and alter the shape of - her enemies. Rose Rita is lured back to Bigger's store and placed under a death spell, while Bigger calls forth Asmodai, requesting the demon change her: "I want to be young and beautiful, and I want to live for a thousand years. But I don't want to get old. I want to stay young, all the time (Letter, 157)." Upon making the demand, she vanishes.
"What kind of tree would you be?"
After Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmermann reunite in the forest behind Bigger's Grocery Store they spot a young slender willow tree, standing alone amid the tall pines, its leaves trembling though no wind. Told of Bigger's last wish, Zimmermann notes that if "a witch is changed into something else - a tree, for instance - then she isn't a witch any more and all her enchantments are broken (Letter, 172)."
Bellairs words the dialogue of the characters and narrator in this scene to never come right out and say the obvious. We're reminded of a 1990 article where John said, "...for me, horror is suggestion and what might happen and the old-fashioned haunted house movies." By strong hints readers can let their imagination connect the dots, thereby solving the puzzle. This effect is somewhat lost when Strickland wrote briefly of the Zimmermann/Bigger account by noting their conflict ended when "the evil witch was herself transformed into a tree" (The Whistle, the Grave, and the Ghost, 32).
The surname Bigger is a funny, descriptive name, seeing the lumpy-looking woman in the book's various illustrations by Richard Egielski.
A real Gertrude Bigger (1884-1961) lived in Marshall, Michigan, and was, in 1924, the Most Excellent Chief of the Knights of Pythias Women's Auxiliary. She was also a member of Saint Mary's Church, the Saint Catherine's Guild, the Rosary Altar Society, and the Catholic Daughters of America.
- Gertrude M. Bigger at Find a Grave