Margaret Laurence’s The Olden Days Coat (1979)
Illus. Muriel Wood
Tundra Books, 1998

Every time I read this book I think “surely this time I won’t cry”, but I always do. And it’s not because this is a sad story, but there is something so overwhelmingly touching about it, that I can’t help but sniffle and trickle.

You wouldn’t think so from the unadorned and simple beginning: “The snow outside Gran’s house was fine and powdery, and it shone in the late afternoon sun as though there were a million miniature Christmas lights within it.”

Nor from the ordinariness of the story’s premise: Sal has to travel with her family to her Gran’s for the holidays, which will be Sal’s first Christmas away from home, because her Grandad died during the past year and Gran wants to spend the holidays in her own home.

“She’d like to spend Christmas at her place, Sal,” Mother had said. “I think she’d like — oh, I don’t know — I just have the feeling that she’d like to have at least this one Christmas in her own home right now.”

See, there’s nothing fancy about it.

Oh, okay, fine: if you know the story, you know there is something a little fancy about it. About the coat that Sal finds in the trunk in her Gran’s shed.

Well, maybe not fancy, but magical. Yes, definitely magical.

Although it is most definitely a children’s story, The Olden Days Coat contains many of the themes that Margaret Laurence dealt with in her fiction for adults: identity and history (who we were, who we are, who came before us), family relationships that evolve over time (or remain stubbornly — or reliably — consistent), and our struggles to accept change (and, simulaneously, an excitement for the promise of the unknown).

Muriel Wood’s illustrations are not the ones I remember from childhood readings of this story, but they are rich and textured, warm and vibrant. Even the snow pictures look rich and warm somehow! And the cat? A stately ginger-cat with a white-tipped tail. I think that I likely would have preferred these as a child, but now nostalgia has taken hold and I long for the originals.

“When the wrapping was off at last, Sal stared.”

No, of course I’m not going to give anything away.

But do mark this one on your list of Christmas Reads.

Or plan to give it as a gift to a bookish friend: it’s definitely a keeper!