24 December 2015

A Christmas of Dwindling

Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky
Most of my annual Christmas reads go back to my childhood, but I picked this up because I loved Lasky's Prank and her adult mysteries involving Callista Jacobs. It is one of my favorite Christmas books, even if the ending is a bit idealized.

The Swift family lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, at the height of the Depression in 1932; Minnie, the youngest girl, is both happy and puzzled when an orphan cousin her age comes to live with them. Willie Faye, who grew up in Dust Bowl Texas, arrives in town with nothing but an almost empty suitcase, a cherished newspaper article about better times, and a kitten named Tumbleweed. She's never seen an indoor bathroom, a movie, or peaches. But this wise-beyond-her-years child with life experiences the Swifts could not have imagined is instrumental in helping the entire family see beyond the leanness of the Depression, and helps them keep faith when the unthinkable happens.

I just love the characters in this story: Minnie, who has a gift for words; the practical Willie Faye whose artistic dreams lends them ideas for gifts and stories of faith; Ozzie, the science-crazy little brother; Lady, the unconventional sister who can take old clothes and scraps of fabric and turn them into fashionable dress; Minnie's stolid father and glamorous mother and her two more conventional sisters; and Jackie, the family's maid, who is portrayed as authentically as possible for the 1930s setting without being overtly patronizing. The realities of the Depression hits home in so many ways: the closing of the bank that supports Mr. Swift's employer, closing off rooms in the house since they can no longer afford to heat them, eating endless meals of "au gratins" and aspic to stretch what little meat they have, not using the car so they can afford a movie now and then, taking food down to a Hooverville where people are living in tar-paper shacks or even piles of tires with tin on top, the fate of a classmate's father. During all their trials little Willie Faye sustains them.

My only problem with this book is the standard "Dear America" epilogue which tells you what happened to the family. Depending on the author, these epilogues can be matter-of-fact, filled with interesting details, or even, in the case of Barry Denenberg, really depressing. <wry grin> Lasky chose the interesting details approach, but made the results rather fairy-tale-ish. It strikes me as being very sugary after a tart and rather dark narrative.

Nevertheless, Minnie and Willie Faye will keep me coming back each year.

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