Reviewed by Jeanne
People tend to be divided about “the Christmas letter” often included in a card this time of the year. Some see such letters as a chance for others to brag about their kids, their house, their vacations, etc., but I’m glad to get one. There are a number of folks I only hear from once a year and it’s nice to know what is going on with their lives. It also saves me from making embarrassing comments a la Ralph Emery. (Emery was notorious for not prepping before an interview, which led him to ask a singer how a bandmate was doing. There was a pause, and the singer replied, “He’s still dead, Ralph.”)
So I do appreciate getting news of those I don’t see often—or at all—so that at least I have some idea of what’s going on in their lives.
Lee Smith took this idea and ran with it in her novella, The Christmas Letters: the story is told through letters written over decades, detailing family events. The book starts with the 1944 letter, in which homesick young bride and new mother Birdie writes to her family in back in West Virginia. She’s living with her husband’s family while he’s in service, serving the Pacific. There are a lot of adjustments to be made and even more when her husband comes home from the war. The letters follow the expanding family until 1967 when daughter Mary—herself a new mother-- begins writing letters of her own.
While the story is presented through the prism of a cheery holiday missive, Lee wisely allows doubts and sorrows to seep through. The writer(s) have a bit of perspective: there’s been time for situations and events to be evaluated, and yet often the emotions remain vivid. The personalities of the writers come through as well, and while they share common traits, they are individuals. I particularly enjoyed seeing Birdie through her daughter’s eyes, just as I had watched Mary grow through her mother’s descriptions.
This is a sweet, but not saccharine little book with a surprising amount of depth to it. Sure, there are recipes included in most letters, the kids are all above average, but there’s a dose of introspection at times. I don’t want to say more, because this is a book to discover on your own. At a mere 126 pages, it doesn’t take long to read but it’s memorable. Like Birdie, I’ll remember that catfish for some time.
Smith is a wonderful storyteller, and she uses the letters not only to illustrate the family but the changing world in which they live. The cover conveys the idea beautifully as well, with a wreath constructed of photos, letters, recipes, addresses, all tied together with a ribbon.
If you have an extra hour or two this year, treat yourself to The Christmas Letters.