fiction favorites…A Certain Small Shepherd

A Certain Small Shepherd, by Rebecca Caudill, illustrated by William Pène du Bois

Jamie was born on a freakish night in November.  The cold that night moved down from the North and rested its heavy hand suddenly on Hurricane Gap.  Within an hour’s time, the naked earth turned brittle.  Line Fork Creek froze solid in its winding bed and lay motionless, like a string dropped at the foot of Pine Mountain.
Nothing but the dark wind was abroad in the hollow.  Wild creatures huddled in their dens.  Cows stood hunched in their stalls.  Housewives stuffed rags in the cracks underneath their doors against the needling cold, and men heaped oak and apple wood on their fires….
Father took the newborn baby from the bed beside its mother and sat holding it on his knee.
“Saro,” he called, “you and Honey come and see Jamie!”
Two girls came from the shadows of the room.  In the firelight they stood looking at the tiny wrinkled red face inside the blanket.
“He’s such a little brother!” said Saro…
Jamie ate and slept and grew.
Like other babies, he cut teeth.  He learned to sit alone and to crawl.  When he was a year old, he toddled about like other one-year-olds.  At two, he carried around sticks and stones like other two-year-olds.  He threw balls and built towers of blocks and knocked them down.
Everything that other two-year-olds could do, Jamie could do, except one thing.  He could not talk.

Jamie is a mute, motherless child; his mother died in childbirth on that cold November night.   Yet his family, tucked in the hills of Appalachia, tenderly loves him, staunchly defends him, and creatively engages him in the world around him.   Father, especially, takes Jamie under his wing, teaching him to milk cows, relying on him to help with the plowing, lying in cool shade and gazing with him at hawks.

When Jamie turns six, Father marches him down to the school at Hurricane Gap.  Miss Creech, the teacher, agrees to let Jamie be in her classroom,  sitting and listening, drawing and copying in lovely colored crayons.  As the Christmas play rolls around, Jamie is assigned the role of a small shepherd.  Jamie has listened well to the story, and grasps his part in it with tremendous earnestness, but a fierce snowstorm makes roads impassable the night of the performance and Jamie’s hopes to play his part are crushed.

With this as backdrop, Caudill introduces a couple of strangers, stranded in the storm, desperately needing shelter; a selfless act of kindness by Jamie’s father; a newborn baby on Christmas morning; a sweet gift from a small shepherd, and a miraculous gift to that little shepherd, all of which, of course, echo the story of the first Christmas.

I love Rebecca Caudill’s writing.  Often set in the Kentucky hills she loved, they are warm glimpses of unflagging love that never turn sappy, clothed in plain-spoken reality.  This short Christmas story is a bit reminiscent of Amahl, and is accessible to preschoolers as a read-aloud, or to sturdy readers, at about a second/third grade level.  The tender watercolor illustrations by du Bois reinforce the 40s-era, folksy tone of this place.  It’s a quiet, sweet Christmas read.

Here’s an Amazon link: A Certain Small Shepherd (Owlet Book)