Sunday, December 22, 2013

What I've Read Recently: Christmas Edition

What I've Read Recently: Christmas Edition . . .

Christmas Treasury by Louisa May Alcott, edited by Stephen W. Hines; illustrations by C. Michael Dudash -- Fiction/short stories

This book contains Christmas-themed stories by the author of Little Women. Some of the stories are newly collected here and others have been published in other anthologies. 

The Quiet Little Women opens the anthology. It is a story of charity about a girl named Patty, an orphan who longs to be loved and needed. When at last her chance comes to be needed, she remains unloved. She stays quiet and steadfast, grateful for her position; but she secretly writes her innermost woes to "Aunt Jane," her employer's kind sister. It's up to Aunt Jane to make the family see Patty as she really is. This story is one of Louisa's many moral tales. The message is very heavy handed but it doesn't make the story less enjoyable. Patty should be annoying because she's so awfully good but she's so sweet and lonely that I couldn't help but root for her to finally achieve her heart's desire. 

A Hospital Christmas is extracted from Hospital Sketches, Louisa's autobiographical account of working in a Washington, DC hospital during the Civil War. This story is more grim and realistic than most of the stories contained in this volume. The soldiers are suffering and only the good, kind nurse understands them and is able to alleviate their pain. When someone forgets to send their Christmas dinner, Miss Hale attempts to smooth ruffled feathers and make Christmas merry for all. This story brings home some of the reality of the Civil War and showcases the horror of war from the point-of-view of a nurse. This story is quiet and the message is more subtle than the children's tales. 

What Polly Found in Her Stocking a poem about the thrill of opening a stocking on Christmas morning. Sweet and simple, this poem will bring alive the magic of Christmas morning for young and old.

Rosa's Tale is a fantasy piece in which a horse is able to speak at midnight on Christmas Eve. Rosa tells her tale to a kind young lady in hopes of convincing Belinda to not sell her. Rosa's story is similar to Black Beauty and animal lovers everywhere will cringe at this tale. I knew I admired Louisa for her dedication to women's rights but this story makes me love her even more because it seems she was also interested in animal welfare, a cause near and dear to my heart! 

Mrs. Podgers' Teapot is one of the few stories to feature adult protagonists. Mrs. Podgers, a landlady, cherishes a teapot, left for her late husband by his workers as a thank you for his charitable giving.  The pot was left on the doorstep on the day Mr. Podgers died and Mrs. P keeps it as a reminder that her late husband had a hidden good side. She promised him she would never remarry and the teapot also serves as a reminder of her promise, much to the dismay of a Mr. Jerusalem Turner. This story has some unexpected twists. It's a predictable Christmas story but the plot was a bit different than I expected. It highlights the suffering of the wretched poor but it's also a sweet romance. As an adult story, the message is subtle and I really liked this story.

Peace From Heaven, a poem, brings alive the feeling of Christmas day. The rhyming meter is very simple and the classical imagery a bit trite. It's sappy and a bit too sweet but it does capture the feeling of watching small children on Christmas morning.

A Country Christmas is a young adult story along the lines of An Old Fashioned Girl. Sophie Vaughn, a wealthy socialite, is staying in the country with her Aunt Plumy and family for the holidays. She invited her citified friends Emily and Randal to visit for Christmas. Emily is polite, but Randal is aghast at the primitiveness of country life. His cynical writer's eye is convinced there is good material for a story here. He clashes with cousin Saul over what it means to be a man and how to write a proper book. Sweet Ruth seems to hero-worship Randal, but as always, there's a moral to the story. There are some predictable moments and some unexpected ones. I really liked this kind of story when I was younger and it reveals a lot about Louisa May Alcott and her personal beliefs. Stories like this must have influenced Lucy Maud Montgomery because the story reads like one of hers. If you like those, you'll like this one a lot.

Gwen's Adventure in the Snow is a fun tale about a sleighing party of girls and boys who get lost in a snowstorm. They're forced to bunker down in their summer house during a howling snowstorm. being stranded brings out the best and worst in people. I would probably not know how to survive like Gwen. I found the story very interesting. I liked this story because it lacked the same charitable giving moral that appears in most of the stories in this anthology.

A Christmas Dream, and How It All Came True is similar to A Christmas Carol. A spoiled young girl named Effie is tired of Christmas. She doesn't want anything except one large gift and one small one to remember some very nice person by. She even thinks it would be better to be a beggar girl. After reading A Christmas Carol, she falls asleep and has a strange dream in which her wish to be a beggar girl comes true. A beautiful angel shows her the meaning of Christmas. When she awakes and related the dream to Mamma and her nurse, it inspires Mamma to create the best Christmas Effie has ever known. This is a sweet moral tale. Effie is a very REAL little girl. She's spoiled, bratty and bored with her comfortable life. She's easy to relate to. The Christmas surprise is so sweet and heartwarming. 

A Song is another Christmas poem about a Christmas tree. It's nice but not very memorable.

A Merry Christmas is adapted from Little Women and begins with the March sisters opening their Pilgrim's Progress books and ends with Mr. Lawrence's surprise.

What Love Can Do is similar to the other moral tales about charitable giving. Two poor young ladies and determined to make Christmas special for their younger siblings. A neighbor in their boarding house overhears their plans and plans her own Christmas surprise. Soon the whole household is involved. The plot is interesting to see how the surprises would come off and how the characters would react. There's even a little romance. This is a nice story, but I doubt that anyone thinks or acts like any of the characters. 

Tessa's Surprise is unique because it features an Italian-American character living in New York instead of the typical Yankee child in New England. Tessa thinks to use her sweet voice to earn some money for Christmas. She accompanies her friend Tommo, the harp boy out onto the streets. It's cold and difficult work. Those with money are reluctant to part with it and many are too busy to even stop and listen until a group of nursery children overhear Tessa singing and implore their mother to pay her. This sets in motion a chain of events that will surprise and astonish Tessa and her family and make the best Christmas ever. I loved reading about an Italian-American character. The story is sweet and sappy. The Christmas surprise sounds like fun. I do not think this story is realistic. Italians are SUPER proud. They don't beg for money and Christmas wasn't really celebrated as it was in the English manner. It's the food and family that's most important and not the tree and presents. At least that's the way it was for my family. I don't see my grandmother or her sister or their mother or grandmother acting like Tessa. They were poor but worked hard. Louisa betrays her ignorance of Italian culture and/or reveals exactly who her audience was.

A Christmas Turkey is another story of charitable giving similar to the previous one. Kitty and her brothers Tommy and Sammy are anxious to make Christmas merry for their baby siblings. Father always comes home cross with a headache and with only part of his wages (i.e. hungover) and Mother is so weary. The three children endeavor to work for their money. Kitty and Tommy try sales and Sam goes to shovel walkways. He's small, but scrappy which earns him much respect and helps bring about the Christmas surprise. This story is kind of cute but the moral is ridiculous. I think children will like this story and relate to the children trying to earn money in the only ways they can. The story is very firmly rooted in the beliefs of the Temperance movement when people believed alcoholism was a moral failing. The plot reveals Louisa's political beliefs which is always interesting. 

Becky's Christmas Dream This story is nearly identical to The Quiet Little Woman. It requires suspension of disbelief and/or belief in magic. I believe in talking animals but not talking inanimate objects. I think children would like it and empathize with Becky. 

Kate's Choice is rather a different sort of story. Like Rose in Eight Cousins, Kate is recently orphaned and come to live with her mother's family in America. She's to live with each of her uncles and their families in turn. Each family has their reasons for wanting her but only one family loves her for who she is and not for her money or social position. Kate misses her grandmother who raised her back in England and is surprised to discover she has another grandmother still living but no one bothers much with the crippled old lady. Kate is determined to see her grandmother and bring some cheer back to the old woman. This is a sweet, predictable story. I can sort of relate because my grandmothers are very important to me. Kate's choice was predictable but the right one for her. This is one of my favorite stories in the collection.

Bertie's Box is another story of charitable giving. Bertie, a small boy from an affluent family, overhears his mother receiving a letter for her charitable society. The woman writes that though poor and in need of everything, all she wants is small presents for the children. The adults are skeptical and reluctant to help but Bertie realizes it's up to him to play Santa Claus for those poor boys who haven't any clothes or toys. Bertie gathers his fine things in a box to send all the way to Iowa. This is a sweet story. The moral is similar to A Christmas Story. I found Bertie very charming and I loved his big heart. I can see my younger niece acting just like Bertie. He must be around the same age for he lisps and has an innocent heart. This is one of my favorite stories in the collection.

A New Way to Spend Christmas is a different story. It's not for children and is told in first person. The main character, who doesn't name themselves, travels to Randall's Island in New York where they visit the poor orphans, the sick babies in the hospital and the school for "retarded" children. This story betrays the time in which it was written. It reveals the beliefs of inherited moral and physical defects in the poor. The treatment of the so-called retarded is actually quite decent for the time period but the attitudes are still a bit off-putting. The character moves through the various buildings but there's no real plot. The narrator tells the story in a rather detached manner. The moral of the story is one of charity, of course. I didn't like this story very much.

Tilly's Christmas is another moral tale for Children. Three friends on their way home from school are looking forward to Christmas, even Tilly who will not be getting any presents at all. She's so good, she even feels kindly towards the rich neighbor who doesn't lift a finger to help his poor neighbors. The children discuss their Christmas wishes and set out to find a lost purse so they'll have money to buy the things they want. When Tilly finds an injured bird in the snow, she feels the bird is her best gift despite the sneers of her friends. Virtuous Tilly is rewarded for her kindness and has the best Christmas she could ever imagine. Tilly is too good and virtuous to be realistic. Real children were undoubtedly supposed to take away a lesson from her but I imagine they probably hated her for being so awfully good. I liked her though because she was kind to animals. The plot is predictable and the moral is strong. It's similar to The Quiet Little Woman and the other moral tales. 
This is a nice anthology to add to any Louisa May Alcott collection. Small two-tone illustrations are placed throughout the book. They don't add anything to the stories but they're very lifelike and pretty. The cover is gorgeous and made to look like a red morocco leather and gilt engraved book of the 19th century. It's actually regular hardcover boards but I love that it looks period. My only complaint about this volume is that it doesn't include a bibliography. I'd like to know when and where each story was published.

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