27 December 2017

A Depression Christmas

Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky
In 2001, the "Dear America" books were still in the middle of their run. This one caught my eye because (a) it was a Christmas book that took place during the Great Depression, which my own parents had endured, and (b) it was written by Kathryn Lasky, who wrote the Calista Jacobs' mystery novels for adults and some great novels for kids like The Bone Wars and Prank, the latter which takes place in East Boston. I opened it and was immediately transported into the life of Minnie Swift, age eleven, at the end of 1932 as the Depression closes its relentless jaws around her family. They've already closed off rooms to save coal, hardly eat any meat at meals, and her father comes home a little earlier from work every day. Minnie correctly deduces that this will not be a season of bounty, but one of want.

And then a surprising thing happens: the daughter of one of Mrs. Swift's cousins is sent to live with them after the death of her mother in the dust-scourged tiny town of Heart's Bend, Texas. Willie Faye Darling arrives encrusted with dirt, carrying a basket with a kitten whose nose and mouth she must siphon out three times a day to keep it from suffocating, meager clothing, and not much else. Minnie is astonished when Willie Faye reveals she's never seen a movie, doesn't know who Buck Rogers is, has never used an indoor toilet, and is frankly amazed by the hyperactive Swifts, including Minnie's super-intelligent younger brother Ozzie and her "distractible" and artistic older sister Lady, so Minnie figures Willie Faye will have a lot to learn from them.

What she, nor the family, knows is how much they will learn from this undersized, quiet refugee from the Dust Bowl.

The story pretty much paints a bleak view of the era, with her father eventually losing his job, friends who have had fathers disappear, seeing friends in bread lines, their visiting a shantytown. But the Swifts also manage to have good times and their ingenuity works to help them. Like my parents did, they forego other treats to attend the movies, make their own Christmas gifts, and find inexpensive amusements.

Only the epilogue comes off as slightly too fanciful.

Otherwise this is a magical book.

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