01 January 2009

Christmas Comfort Reading

I have certain books I go back to every year, as they are as much a part of Christmas as the tree and A Christmas Carol. One I read first at my own home, another from the Stadium School library, and the third is a recent acquisition.

Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot was written in 1948 by Frances Frost. In the 1960s, the "Windy Foot" books about the Clark family and their Vermont farm were standard issue in children's rooms and school libraries. In the first novel, Windy Foot at the County Fair, Toby Clark is given a pony he names Windy Foot for his birthday. He meets Letitia "Tish" Burnham at the fair where he is planning to race Windy in the annual races. In this second offering of the series, Tish and her horse-trainer dad Jerry (her mother is deceased) visit the Clark farm for Christmas. What follows are nostalgic preparations for the holiday: converting a sleigh for Windy to pull, Christmas shopping, carol singing in the town square, popping corn by the fire, awaiting the birth of a calf that will be a gift for Toby's little sister Betsy.

But a marauding bear poses a danger to the livestock and Toby's plan for skiing with Tish, if another hidden danger doesn't strike first.

All the Windy Foot books are great snapshots of small farms in the late 1940s/early 1950s, but this is my favorite: I love going snowshoeing with Toby and Betsy for Christmas greens, singing carols in the town square and shopping in the country store, sleighing under the stars. The Clarks don't live an easy life, but it's a happy one.

Whitman Books published a series of books in the 1960s about the Tucker family: five kids and mom and dad, with the obligatory big shaggy dog and also a cat living in a big old house in the small town of Yorkville where dad works with his father in running a variety store. The books were written by at least two authors and continuity is a mess, but the stories are fun.

The Cottage Holiday, however, breaks from the routine a bit by emphasizing the story of 7-year-old Penny. The youngest girl and the next to youngest child, Penny is plagued by constant colds and bad health, and worries about her place in the world and even within the family group. When she envisions a Christmas celebration at their lake cottage and is allowed to go by her pediatrician, Penny begins to learn more about her hidden strengths. In the meantime, the kids not only play snow games on the beach and prepare for Christmas, but are involved in the mystery of a supposedly abandoned baby and the hunting of a cougar killing livestock at the local farms.

Again, it's one of those books where you want to be there, having fun with the family and their holiday preparations, but the subplot of Penny searching for her place in the order of things is also very appealing and the sort of story that was ordinarily not featured in a series book of this type. The end of the story requires a tissue. :-)

A newer book that has become de rigueur in my reading queue at Christmas is Christmas After All by Kathryn Lasky. This book is part of the "Dear America" series and is based on Lasky's own family. The Swift family, including 12-year-old narrator Minnie, are enduring the privations of the Depression at Christmastime of 1932, closing down room after room to save coal, surviving on endless meals of bits of meat stretched by bread, rice and cheese, and wondering why their father comes home a little earlier each day. Then a telegram requests that they pick up Willie Faye Darling at the train station. Willie is the daughter of Belle's cousins and both her parents have died in the Dust Bowl town of Heart's Bend, Texas.

When Willie Faye arrives, stunted by malnutrition and carrying only two pairs of underwear and the clothes she is wearing (and a kitten she saved from a dust storm), not having ever seen a movie, an indoor bathroom, and the comics, Minnie thinks her cousin will have a lot to learn from them. She doesn't dream what the little girl from Heart's Bend will teach her and her family.

Lasky makes everyone in the story so real—probably because they are based on actual family members—from Minnie's only brother, an electronics prodigy, to her unconventional sister Lady, to her practical older sisters Gwen and Clem, to her warm parents, to Jackie, the family housekeeper, not to mention a snotty classmate, her sisters' boyfriends (including one based on her father), and the victims of the Depression living in a "Hooverville." The story mixes humor, family experience, and even anxiety after Minnie's classmate's father commits suicide.

Lasky writes great books anyway; I have loved her Prank, set in East Boston, and the Cambridge-based Callista Jacobs mysteries, which, sadly, there were only a handful of.

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