Second and last in the “Christmas Dear America” series, let’s go for a Dear America book that is unlike any other I’ve ever read, and not necessarily in a good way? Is that a good thing? I don’t know, let’s find out.
Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932, Kathryn Lasky, 2001.
(Yes, I know it was reissued with a new cover, but I love this cover and I loathe the new ones, so I’m choosing to ignore it.)
For starters, I don’t want to be too harsh on this book because it’s based on Kathryn Lasky’s real-life family. The characters are named after Lasky’s mother, aunts, and uncle, and the house is their real-life 1930s house. I love, love, love it when authors use their own stories and family history to enrich books, because it’s always so fascinating and cool to see a sort of real personal connection in a way not all books have. And real life is stranger and more wonderful than anything any fiction author could dream up, I believe, anyhow.
Minnie Swift is twelve years old and lives in Indianapolis, and as a native Midwesterner myself, I adore books that are set in the Midwest not for any special reason (i.e., the Midwesternness is not a plot point), but it just is and it’s totally normal and great. She has three older sisters and a younger brother, all with amazing names—Gwendolen (Gwen), Clementine (Clem), Adelaide (Lady), and Oswald (Ozzie). At first, Minnie is complaining that she has to share a room with Lady, because her parents are closing off more rooms to save money on heating in December—because it’s the Depression and, as you may have heard, money is a little bit tight.
They’re joined by Willie Faye, Minnie’s second cousin from Texas, whose parents have died and has nowhere else to go. So suddenly the Swifts have eight mouths to feed, even if Willie Faye is a tiny little scrap of a girl, and Minnie is suddenly far more concerned with this strange creature from Texas. Willie Faye is an interesting character of her own, from Dust Bowl Texas, and has bunches of strange stories to tell them and has no idea about a lot of modern pop culture. (“Modern” meaning radio shows, cartoons, indoor toilets, and public school.) Mostly she serves as a way to teach the reader about all of these things, but it’s done in a gentle and sweet way so I can’t get too bothered over it.
As usual, Kathryn Lasky is doing her excellent writing (entertaining without being overdramatic, humorous without being snarky, educational without being textbook, should I continue?), Example A: “Gwendolyn’s boyfriend Delbert Frink—yes, that is his name and he is as weird as his name, in Lady’s and my opinion—came over and helped Papa move the day bed upstairs.” Willie Faye shares the room with Minnie and Lady, and for a while Willie Faye is the most fascinating thing around. But she quickly becomes part of the household, and Minnie gets to fretting about her dad, who spends more and more time sequestered in the attic with the typewriter and the adding machine lately, rather than with his family. Ozzie is too busy with his radio and science sets (Ozzie comes off as maybe having Asperger’s, or at least being somewhere on the spectrum, given that he has a hard time with social interaction but is fairly obsessive about his science and radio equipment—this isn’t a plot point, it’s just nice to see) to really notice, and the other older girls have fairly busy social lives of their own, but Minnie notices and worries about it quite a bit.
A lot of this book is just general chatter about Minnie’s life—school, what’s for dinner, what her sisters (especially Lady, who is sixteen and somewhat, oh, wild) are up to, what her annoying younger brother is doing—which I love. It’s so true-to-life without overdoing it—“I hated supper tonight. It was meatless meat loaf. I think we should call it weird loaf. It has everything but meat in it—peanuts, cottage cheese, rice. It’s cheap.” Food is a HUGE part of this book (mostly through the kids complaining about it), but you get a good sense of just how damn hard it was to feed eight mouths every single day during the height of the Depression. Weird loaf would be on the menu, as would, I’m sure, many other weird things. Minnie points out that the only time she’s ever heard her mother say “shut up” was when Minnie was complaining about cabbage, and it’s all so heartbreakingly realistic but filtered through a 12-year-old’s point of view, it’s just excellent and painful and funny all at once.
Minnie’s oldest sister, Gwen, has had to drop out of college and go to work since her parents can’t pay the tuition any more, and took up a job at a publishing house. “…Gwen likes to try to cook these recipes that she had to type out for the cookbook Bobbs-Merrill published called Joy of Cooking. Lady and I call it the Sadness of Aspic….Aspic is a solid ten on the vomitron.” I LOVE IT. Kathryn Lasky deserves every award in existence. Anyway, this is just another point on how dire things are for the family, but Gwen and the other girls still manage to go out with their friends and boyfriends while Minnie and Willie Faye and Ozzie stay home and listen to the radio—and Minnie’s dad stays in the attic, not socializing with anyone, just staying up there alone.
Things mostly go on—Minnie and Willie Faye are in the school Christmas pageant, Lady dyes her hair platinum blonde and gets into a whackload of trouble, Willie sees her first movie, Minnie’s father gets his act together and takes them all downtown to look at the Christmas windows—and so on. But then Hocklemeyer’s, the biggest client of Minnie’s father’s company, closes, and Minnie is afraid her father is just going to fade away from them entirely and never come back downstairs again. Their mother is too worried and anxious trying to keep the family fed and decent that she doesn’t even notice when the older girls sneak out all night and go to a “coloured jazz club.” I would read an entire book (an adult book, I mean, not a 150-page kids’ book) about Minnie’s mom—she basically steers an entire family of a depressed husband, five children of her own and one orphan cousin, a daily cook, a cat, a flock of hens, and various other friends/boyfriends/family hanger’s-on—throughout the entire book. No wonder she’s flummoxed and distracted.
Clem gets a new beau named Marlon after going to the jazz club, and Willie Faye and Minnie decide to make gifts out of hens’ feathers and other “things around the house.” I tried so many times to do stuff like this as a kid and finally decided I had no patience. I fully blame books like this one. Minnie’s father’s company closes entirely, Gwen breaks up with her oily boyfriend Delbert Frink, and then—MINNIE’S FATHER JUST UP AND LEAVES. He disappears!!!! One evening he’s there in the attic and the next morning he is just GONE. Two weeks before Christmas. See, I would totally read the book about Minnie’s mom. Her dad just up and leaves and leaves a note saying not to worry. Who does that?
Willie Faye is the only one convinced that he’s gone for a good reason, and she keeps trying to tell them that, but she just can’t seem to convince anyone else (because obviously, their father has just abandoned them). So they try to work on Christmas presents instead (feathered hats for the older girls, decoupage boxes, a tie and vest for their dad, and so on) and focus on something good, but what good can there really be? Ozzie is convinced their father is dead somewhere, and Willie keeps trying to cheer him up with stories about Texas, but how do you cheer up someone who thinks their father is dead and/or abandoned the family?
Gwen’s company holds a Christmas party that Minnie goes to along with Willie and Lady and Clem, and Lady cuts Minnie’s hair short to look like Amelia Earhart, and they try to play in the snow, but the whole time Minnie is glum thinking of how their Christmas is going to seem to outsiders. Her mother actually hires a private detective to search for Mr. Swift after Ozzie sells his chemistry set. And when Minnie goes downtown with Gwen for lunchtime and sees all the people pressed up against the glass marveling, she writes “Sometimes when I think about this Great Depression I think that there has never been such a collision between realness and fantasy. It is if we are standing with our feet in the muck and grime of these hard times but our noses are pressed up against the window of some fantastically glamorous store. These times are so strange.” I love this. It’s unexpectedly beautiful.
On Christmas Eve, Clem’s boyfriend Marlon takes them ice skating, but no one is very hungry for a nice meal afterwards, so they take their food to Curtisville, the Indianapolis shantytown. And then when they get back, the house is all lit up and decorated and warm, and MINNIE’S DAD IS THERE. He had gone to Chicago and sold NBC a script for a radio show for six hundred dollars. And they loved it. They exchange all their Christmas gifts and have a lovely Christmas after all.
In the epilogue, the Swifts become wealthy—very much so—thanks to the radio show which spun off into comic books. All their girls, including Willie Faye, finish college, and Ozzie goes to MIT and later works on the atom bomb. Minnie joins the Army Air Force during the war, later marries an Air Force captain who is killed in Korea, and later writes adventure novels for young girls.
Rating: C+. Hear me out on this one. I love the writing in this book. It’s charming and endearing and engrossing. Kathryn Lasky is a genius at kids’ fiction. I think Willie Faye is a little bit superfluous, but I get her necessity as a plot driver. But this book is a terrific example of wish fulfillment fantasy, and I prefer my DA novels to be a bit less….happily-ever-after? I know that Lasky is basing this on her own family story, which I love, but I don’t believe the “radio program to millionaire” thing is part of that reality, and that’s what tips it over the edge into “only OK” for me. I really like this book, but I don’t know if I’d recommend to others as a story about the Depression—I would recommend it as a “heartwarming holiday tale,” though.