Based around the series of annual letters written by the women of one family, this is not a plot-driven chronicle.
It’s a meditative, quiet collection of updates on everyday family life.
You know, the Christmas Letter.
As the author indicates in her “Dear Reader” letter, what is left out of these letters is often more important than what is written therein.
And isn’t that always the way with this sort of letter? Reading between their lines is as much fun as actually reading them.
The first half of the book is comprised of letters written by Birdie, beginning in 1944, when she is freshly married with a new baby (Mary), living in North Caroline and desperately homesick for her family in Virginia.
There is a good bit of background offered in that first letter, which Birdie explains by saying that it eases her homesickness, but it’s also necessary for the reader to feel invested in the ongoing series of epistles.
The next letter is dated five years later, although it’s clear that the annual letters have been written in-between (they just aren’t shared), so there is a lot of filling-in-the-blanks (but it’s easy enough to do and, indeed, is one of the ways in which the reader becomes more engaged with the text).
As the years pass, I actually found the evocation of time and place more interesting than the family updates.
Once the letters shift into Mary’s voice, the tone becomes much less formal, which suits the times, although each letter still continues her mother’s tradition of including a recipe.
(No, this is not code for saying that Mary’s mother, Birdie, has died. News of her is passed through Mary’s letters along with news of all the other family members.)
Reading these recipes brings back all sorts of memories for me as a reader, too, because a lot of the things that my mother prepared when I was a girl were inspired by what the older generation in her family prepared.
(So, for instance, the fascination with snack foods that mimicked Nuts and Bolts was alive and well in my childhood, even though they weren’t exactly au courant then, and had featured in a letter from Birdie that predates me by a good chunk of years. And all those years in which no recipe was complete without a can of water chestnuts. Ditto: coloured marshmallows.)
So although these are not recipes I could ever imagine making, I really enjoyed reading them as part of the letters. It brought back memories that weren’t exactly Christmas-related, but still rooted in family experiences.
The letters also serve as a chronicle of changing perspectives on parenting, marriage, sex roles, careers, home-making (literally and figuratively), and relationships of all kinds.
As was the case with Birdie’s letters, there is one in Mary’s section which could be argued is a little long, or contrived or something. But, by then, I was content to read along and see how everything turned out.
And about how it all turns out? I shan’t say anymore than this. It’s a sweet little volume. You could easily read it in a couple of hours, affording time to gather mulled drinks and baked goods as the years pass on the page.
I can see how this would make a nice tradition for Christmas Eve reading for those who are looking for something more home-spun than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, something less fantastical than L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.
Have you read this novella? Do you have favourite holiday favourites of your own that you’re reading these days (or have lying-in-wait)?
PS Mary rents a copy of “The Company of Strangers” at some point, calling it “that wonderful Canadian thing about the old women on the bus”; it’s been ages since I watched that, but I remember it being quite wonderful. You?