Finding the Christmas Spirit (in a 1952 Classic)
December 17, 2015 § 4 Comments
One of my favorite memories of last December (read my post here) was reading Winterfrost to my children. Amidst the hustle and bustle and never-ending to-dos of the holiday season, the three of us set aside time each night to savor the enchanting story of a child kidnapped by a nisse (Danish “house gnome”) on Christmas night and the sister who goes off to rescue her.
This December, I wanted to re-create that holiday magic with my children. I wanted something that called us away from the overt materialism of the holiday season, that tapped into feelings of love and togetherness, of gratitude for what we have and generosity of spirit.
I took a stab in the dark and grabbed Betty MacDonald’s 1952 novel, Nancy and Plum (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), off the shelf at the library.
Holy holiday wonderfulness. A BETTER BOOK I COULD NOT HAVE CHOSEN.
Nancy and Plum is not a Christmas story per se, but it begins and ends with the soft snowfall of Christmas Eve. Flanked by two Christmases, the story traverses a year in the life of an eleven and eight year old girl: two poor, orphaned sisters, who reside at a bleak boarding house in the English countryside, under the care of the cruel and calculating Mrs. Monday. Believing themselves worthy of more, the sisters pour every ounce of energy into trying to reverse their fate.
As some of you have undoubtedly already recognized, Betty MacDonald is the same author behind the popular Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series, about a Mary Poppins-type figure, who lives in an Upside Down House and provides parents with remedies (part magical, part common sense) for their children’s mis-behaviors. My children went nuts over these books, dying laughing as we listened to them in the car last summer. (For those who missed my recent Facebook announcement, a NEW Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series is in the works for next fall, written by MacDonald’s great-granddaugher in conjunction with award-winning author Ann M. Martin, and with interior art by the illustrious Ben Hatke. OMG YES!)
Nancy and Plum feels more akin to oldies like All-of-a-Kind Family than it does to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. After all, there is no magic. There are no silly, absurd antics or gross exaggerations. And yet, the same inherent respect for the childhood experience runs through all of these works. The quiet, understated, lyrical narrative of Nancy and Plum tugs at our heartstrings. It has us cursing the injustice of children not getting the care and respect they deserve. It celebrates the power of imagination to find hope and joy in everyday blessings. Above all, it reminds us what it means to love and be loved.
When we meet the sisters in the book’s opening chapter, they are locked outside the boarding house and forced to spend a cold, snowy Christmas Eve alongside the animals in the barn. We quickly discover that the girls’ greatest assets are their feisty, unbreakable spirits. They find humor and adventure in each of their woes. When all else fails, they use their imagination to tell each other splendid, richly detailed stories about the family they wish they had, the meals they wish they were eating, the velvet and silk and dolls and toys they wish they owned. (Lest you think these themes are too girly for your boys, I assure you that my son listened to descriptions about doll clothing with rapt attention—and was later rewarded with plenty of physical comedy, like when Plum tries to recruit a chicken to serve as a courier for a letter she wants to mail. A good reminder not to choose read-aloud books along gender lines.)
The girls find intermittent escape from the toils of the boarding house on schooldays, under the benevolent tutelage of Miss Waverly and the warm local librarian, Miss Appleby. Books, too, play an important role in feeding the girls’ spirit (especially Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (referred to by its old title, Sara Crewe), which my children have requested to read next).
In the end, however, neither Nancy’s beautiful singing voice nor Plum’s exceptional spelling skills, neither the occasional Sunday School picnic nor the girls’ hilarious fantasies to get even with Mrs. Monday’s horrid tattletale niece—are enough to rise above the menial labor and verbal abuse that they face on a daily basis under Mrs. Monday. In the hopes of tracking down an uncle whom they believe might help them, the sisters escape through an open window one night and run away. (Incidentally, Mary Grand Pre, illustrator of the Harry Potter books, did these fabulous black and white illustrations for the 2010 reprint of this book.)
The sisters’ happy ending—indeed, one of the most joy-filled, feel-good endings I’ve ever encountered (there was great clapping and cheering in our house when I closed the book)—comes, not from their uncle, but from the hospitality of a childless farmer and his wife, who find the girls sleeping in their haystack and are immediately smitten with them. At last, we get to watch the sisters be on the receiving end of kind words and gentle touches, of homemade chicken pot pies and velvety party dresses. Of their very first Christmas tree. Right alongside our heroines, our own hearts literally swell to the point of bursting. (Or, as my son kept exclaiming, “The food in this book is making me so hungry!”)
For every blessing that Nancy and Plum receive from the loving Campbells, material or not, they display only the sincerest awe and gratitude, a message I hope my children picked up on (!). Not only that, but the girls pay the generosity forward, making sure that those left behind at the boarding house will receive special things on their wish lists, as well as a promise for better treatment in the future.
MacDonald’s writing is as romantic as it is transcendent. At the story’s close—when the snow turns low bushes into “big fat cupcakes” and the “runners of the sleigh hissed” with Nancy and Plum tucked between the Campbells on their way to their holiday pageant—my kids and I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic for a time we never knew. Still, we have been touched by Nancy and Plum’s beautiful and true spirit. I’m hopeful that we will carry some of this in our hearts in the week ahead, remembering that if we have love, we have everything.
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