Here’s the last of the vintage holiday novels I promised…
Marianna walked slowly. She was in no hurry to get home where, so far, there was no sign of Christmas…
In the bay a buoy went bong…bong…a slow and giant metronome for the muffled sound of foghorns on the boats and the barges. A lighted tanker headed out to sea. For this was in Brooklyn, down near the water, where ships from Japan came in, and from Chile, and where barges tied up too and unloaded their cargo. Marianna’s tall brownstone house was just a few blocks away. She could hear all these sounds of the harbor from it and the screaming of the gulls, which sometimes lighted on her roof on a stormy day. She could smell the coffee and spices carried by the ships, and chocolate from a nearby candy factory, and bread being baked in shops on Atlantic Avenue.
She missed Kenny. She and Kenny almost always walked home from school together. They’d stop and look through the doors and windows of the shops to see the huge kegs of ripe olives, the stacks of flat round loaves of Syrian bread, and the sweets that made their mouths water — baklava and honey cakes. On the way home she and Kenny talked about everything. But today what Marianna wanted to talk about was trees — Christmas trees.
Marianna has Christmas trees on her mind for good reason — she’s never had one in her house. Her mother won’t allow it. She plum doesn’t believe in doing things like every other tom-dick-and-harry. So…no Christmas tree. Even Alice McKaye, who lives on a barge, has a Christmas tree, but not Marianna.
Marianna hopes that maybe if she catches her mother in just the right mood, she’ll relent. She drags home tree after tree, tossed out by college students before heading home for the holidays, imagining all the while her mother’s face brightening, her voice filling with good humor saying, “Why not? Why not have a Christmas tree this year!” But that glad mood never seems to come, and her mother rebuffs all Marianna’s efforts.
Her brother Kenny longs for a tree as well, though he is more realistic about Mother’s frame of mind. Marianna’s new friend, Alice, earnestly works to help Marianna achieve her dream, too. By putting their heads together, is there any way at all to change Mother’s mind?
This unusual Christmas story by award-winning author Eleanor Estes, features an atypical mother figure who is blunt, irritable, and a bit uncaring. She does not seem to understand her children’s needs, preferring the baby who doesn’t make such demands on her, nor does she appear to recognize the pain she causes when she rejects and reprimands them. A piece of Mother’s past, however, reveals more than Marianna and Kenny really grasp about her painful associations with Christmas Eve. There’s more to Mother than meets the eye. Meanwhile, Kenny and Marianna have a warm sibling bond, and Marianna’s new friend Alice, too embarrassed by her living conditions to confide in anyone but Marianna, is a loyal comrade as well. Eleanor Estes has made the simple longings of each of these children palpable. Oh, how I wanted Marianna to get that tree!
It really is a story about hope, a child’s dogged hope in the face of no encouragement. It’s about friendship — friendship between needy children in challenging family situations who give one another courage and love. It’s about inventing your own happiness, and rejoicing in the happiness of others. While there is a spare, aching note to the story, there’s also much depth, richness, kindness — never overworked — and flashes of fanciful, childish delight.
This story has no Cinderella, happy-ever-after ending, but neither is there despair. Instead, each of the children recalibrates her needs, as it were, and finds sufficient happiness for herself, and tremendous happiness in the others’ joy. In the end, I found it to be a very satisfying, thought-provoking story. 75 pages, and sparsely illustrated with loose ink sketches. I recommend this for reading aloud to children ages 8 and up, or for a thoughtful, independent reader age 9 or 10 and older.