23 December 2015
Christmas in Vermont Revisited
Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
The Clarks are a small farm family in late 1940s Vermont in this classic four-book children's series by Frost, a Vermont native. In the opening book, 12-year-old protagonist Toby Clark received the dapple-grey pony Windy Foot as a birthday gift and raced him in the annual county fair pony competition, where he met 12-year-old Tish Burnham, a horse breeder's daughter. At Christmas, the whole family: dad, mom, Toby, 9-year-old Betsy, 5-year-old Johnny, and farmhand Cliff (who's pretty much family) are preparing to welcome Tish and her father Jerry for a visit as well as planning a true farm Christmas with homemade decorations, gifts ordered from the mail order catalog, caroling under the town Christmas tree and shopping at the general store, and Toby taking Tish out riding in the new sleigh he refit for Windy Foot.
Fifty years after I read it for the first time, I still get as much enjoyment out of this story as I did the first time, even if Johnny's little impromptu poems still make me roll my eyes and the girls' brief talk about dolls bore me. It's an annual read, and a portrait of a vanished era: cows milked by hand and barns lit by lanterns, kids going on their own showshoeing to gather Christmas greens or going skiing without adults keeping tabs on their every move, boys renovating things on their own, the family gathered by the fire instead of each around an electronic device. There's even a marauding bear, a skiing accident, and a stolen sleigh to add a little excitement. It's very easy to be taken into the warm home-circle and feel comfortable with these characters.
I have always found it notable that in a book written in 1948, Tish's ambition is to be a surgeon or at the least a medical doctor. Toby finds that this idea of "a girl being a doctor" fills him with "awe," but also thinks that she'd make a good one. There is no attempt by Toby or any other adult to try to dissuade Tish from this goal, a surprising attitude in an era when even "career girls" were eventually expected to quit their jobs in favor of marriage and a family. Also, Betsy is given an unusual Christmas gift and no one says that a girl should not be receiving such a gift.
Frost also has a talent with picturesque descriptions that remind me of Gladys Taber. This is a nostalgic book well worth seeking out for its approachable characters, family interactions, Christmas-cozy factor, and pacing.