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Christmas in the South reminds us of the multitude of emotions that arise as December approaches and the shopping days decrease, as anticipations and hopes rise about reunions, renewed vows, ...
Christmas in the South reminds us of the multitude of emotions that arise as December approaches and the shopping days decrease, as anticipations and hopes rise about reunions, renewed vows, charity, and the perfect present. This year's anthology includes some of the South's finest contemporary fiction writers: Doris Betts, Larry Brown, Ellen Douglas, Michael Knight, Clyde Edgerton, Gail Godwin, Jill McCorkle, Carolyn Haines, Silas House, and Donald Harington. Accompanied by Wyatt Waters's vibrant watercolors commissioned specifically for this collection, this beautiful volume, like its predecessor, promises to be a treasured keepsake.
|An Unsent Letter||1|
|What Child Is This?||9|
|Good Will Toward Men||53|
|Christmas on Madewell Mountain||59|
|The Perfect Tree||73|
|The Gift of Lies||89|
|The Blue Carcoat||137|
|Ponies for Christmas||147|
|Merry Christmas, Scotty||213|
Cheerful, over-achieving adults and small children seem to get a consistent bang out of the Christmas holidays, but for the lot of us, it is more like a series of days we annually, earnestly endure in the hope that our communal family peace and our individual peace of mind will be intact at the end of the year. Particularly in the South, where major portions of our landscape are never going to match the customary greeting-card depiction of a romantic ride in a one-horse open sleigh, where only a few states are ever carpeted with enough snow to build a reasonably sized snowman, we tend to anticipate Christmas with more longing than most people. And it is more than our temperate weather that has modern Southerners craving holiday perfection. As so gorgeously recounted in this collection, Christmas has become symbolic of the contemporary distance between the old ideal of the traditional, close-knit family gathering together over the holidays and becoming even closer and the newer reality of the farther-flung family separated by state rather than county lines, by socio-political ideologies, by basic values rather than trivial differences, gathering together and either forgiving or becoming more estranged.
We labor to create an ideal and then we guard it against wreckage, sometimes worrying the joy out of the season and ourselves. We want wonder and bliss and the magic of the season, and then we monitor, chastise, and control. We can create battlefields of longing, and when it's all over, we clean up and wait until next year, when we can try for perfection again. It is little wonder that a day so burdened with anticipation and dread so often fails to produce unmitigated pleasure, and that even the slightest mishaps or misdeeds, things easily ignored the rest of the year, are able to make permanent impresses on our memories. The memory treats Christmas different, assigns events a higher value; and so then, given the urgent place of memory in the work of each writer in this volume, it is understandable that each of their stories seems so naturally alive and true that the reader feels instantly let inside and shown around different homes, different worlds, variously decorated with varieties of trees, with love, loss, and longing.
These stories are opportunities for us to consider why the holidays are days we can't wait to get here or can't wait to leave, or both. They are gifts of language and memory that will compel us to regard Christmases past and wonder at the best and the worst of them. As strange as it may sound to say that one of the most beautiful aspects of the collection is the way these writers deal with loss and grief, I say it because as I read, I was washed over with what I suppose one could call nostalgia for the love of my grandfather, who died on Christmas Eve of 1965. His seven sons and daughters and all their children were gathered around his chair, watching him open presents. My mother, Shine, was sitting on his lap. Her long legs hung over his knees. My memory has him pressing his hands to his chest and dying instantly. All the children are herded upstairs by screaming aunts. I will always be grateful to my memory for eliminating any other unbearable events of that day, and I am grateful to the writers for opening the door to my grandfather's house again, where love and joy were so abundant.
I am also grateful to these writers for reminding me, quite literally, of why I love to write. The gifts of Doris Betts, Clyde Edgerton, Donald Harington, Nanci Kincaid, Carolyn Haines, Gail Godwin, Jill McCorkle, Ellen Douglas, and Larry Brown are treasures I have kept stored for use in my own work for almost twenty years. Their humor and pathos, their ability, willingness, and what Walker Percy probably would've called a "knack" for addressing the highest, most important elements of human thought and emotion-love, pride, grief, loneliness, despair, faith, gladness-in the confident and clear cadences of the vernacular, are as evident in these representative stories as in any other of their works.
Finding Eudora Welty's confluence, that place where two different ideas come together and flow as one, is what these writers do best and is what has earned them international reputations as masters of their craft. A reader in France, for example, knows that when he reads "Merry Christmas, Scotty" or any other story by Larry Brown, he is going to meet an ordinary citizen, probably of Mississippi, who is going to use his own unvarnished voice to tell him an utterly profound, extraordinary story that will leave him feeling ragged and redeemed. If these writers used the vernacular to recast only local trivialities, then they would not be great, they would not be who they are; but they are in the habit of using the voices of their particular places to examine the widest and deepest emotions we share, and that is what lifts the best writing of the South up out of this time and place. That these remarkable authors have given us stories about the miracles of love and loss at Christmas only adds another dimension to their art.
Although stylistically different, Silas House and Michael Knight both write with an uncanny grace and authority. Their particular turns of phrase and their ability to summarize the humanity or lack of humanity in a character by one swift or metaphorical movement are feats no writer ever takes for granted, no matter how long he or she has been writing. Like the other writers who have been gathered here to tell us something about the mystery of Christmas, they bring us their singular attitudes, their rich voices, and we expect and receive nothing less than magic from them. One book this full of so much glorious language may, in fact, be the closest thing to experiencing a perfect Christmas any of us find this year. The book doesn't need wrapping either, as it was wrapped around with all our voices, dreams, and wishes the moment the writers decided to give us all such magnificent gifts of their spirit.
When we began to gather stories for Christmas in the South, we had already agreed on the criteria. First, the stories had to invoke the spirit of the holiday season; second, they had to be authored by Southerners; and third, they had to be great stories.
It should have been easy to make the selections, yet we found ourselves once again asking the same questions: What makes a story a Christmas story? Must it mention the word Christmas, or is it enough to be set in the winter with its short days and quick cold snaps? Must it be as warm and glowing as a Yule log, or might it be as dark as a roux left unattended on the stove?
While that issue simmered on the back burner, we moved on to the task of finding Southern writers. This quickly morphed into the question of who is or is not a Southerner. Some folks think a Southerner is anybody whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the War Between the States, as we call it. Others think they qualify if they got moved below the Mason-Dixon Line by IBM and have since learned the difference between fixing to do something and going right ahead and doing it. Does it make you a Southern writer, for example, if you spent a semester at Ole Miss studying under Barry Hannah? We sincerely hope so. Eudora Welty, who was born and lived most of her life in the heart of Dixie, said she sometimes felt like an outsider because she "could never talk about the old family home that was burned during the Civil War." She was a first generation Southerner, raised by a father from Ohio and a mother from the mountains of West Virginia. Maybe this distance enabled her to see her neighbors from some comfortable middle ground, halfway between familiarity and total objectivity. We hasten to add that Miss Welty would be acceptable by all our measures had we not further narrowed our search for writers to those working at the present time.
In the end, the last requirement for these Christmas stories proved to be the hardest to pin down. Miss Welty gave us a standard when she discussed her own short stories in a 1942 interview with Robert Van Gilder: "I'd like people to be moved, to feel they have passed through some experience with me," she said.
It is our hope that as readers pass through the experiences contained in the eleven stories in this collection, they will also experience the magic of Christmas in all its complexity. For Christmas is undoubtedly the most conflicted time of year, so regular, so seemingly predictable-yet so very irregular and unpredictable. It is a time of great expectations, great revelations, and, sometimes, of overwhelming disappointment. The stories that follow exhibit with genuine fidelity the mix of experiences and emotions that constitute the Southern Christmas. We open with Silas House's story, "An Unsent Letter," wherein a young woman from the mountains of Kentucky is facing her first Christmas away from home. "What Child Is This?" by Doris Betts is a story of courageous nurturing. Clyde Edgerton's "Good Will Toward Men" reveals that good will isn't necessarily a given at Christmas-not unless someone's threatening to expose us. In Donald Harington's "Christmas on Madewell Mountain," a young girl prepares to spend Christmas alone; and in Carolyn Haines's "The Perfect Tree," a sister reluctantly grants her brother's final request. Nanci Kincaid's "The Gift of Lies" proves that well-intentioned prevarication is sometimes a necessary gift, and Gail Godwin's "Largesse" reveals what happens when a young girl is seduced by the material riches of her wealthy, childless aunt. A Christmas parade is central in Jill McCorkle's coming-of-age story "The Blue Carcoat," and duplicitous gifts are called for in Michael Knight's "Ponies for Christmas." A precocious child learns much about her family while pretending to read in Ellen Douglas's "Christmas Holidays," and our closing story, Larry Brown's "Merry Christmas, Scotty," demonstrates that one doesn't really need fancy trappings to enjoy Christmas.
In this age seemingly given over to fancy trappings and total saturation television, we are pleased to report that the Christmas story is alive and well and vigorously plundering every known human experience and emotion. We found an abundance of material from which to choose these fine-spun holiday stories, stories which allow the reader to experience the variety of unfolding dramas that make up the regular, yet totally unpredictable Christmas in the South.
Merry Christmas, you-all!
Posted October 24, 2005
Unlike many books of Christmas, this collection of tales set in the South is sometimes gritty, thought-provoking, and haunting. The reader is dropped suddenly into the lives of the characters, with no prelude and no endings. I consider the title and book jacket very misleading and I further feel that some readers will find this volume an unpleasant surprise. So -- forget the warm fuzzies of the holidays and enjoy the writing for the slice-of-life style.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.