Don Noble
9:26 am
Thu December 16, 2004

Christmas in the South: Holiday Stories from the South's Best Writers

These are pretty good stories, and they are, in a painfully realistic way, Christmas stories.

This volume of holiday stories presents me with a dilemma. If the stories had been really sentimental, sappy, cloying, filled with heartwarming goo, Christmas miracles, touched by an angel, etc., etc., I would have complained bitterly. But they're really not. They are so unsentimental I found myself feeling a little dismayed and depressed.

For example, the first story, "An Unsent Letter," by Silas House, is in fact a letter, by a 24-four-year-old girl from an Eastern Kentucky holler, who is living in Dayton, Ohio and is so miserably homesick she thinks she might die. Her husband, Simeon, has taken to drink, and they are no better off financially than they were back in Free Creek. It's ridiculous, in a way, but still, very sad.
The volume ends with a Larry Brown story that was also distressing, since Larry Brown died last week of a heart attack at the age of 52.

The story, "Merry Christmas, Scotty," begins this way: "I was sitting in the bar, watching it snow, and enjoying my very last Christmas cup of eggnog." The protagonist, Nick, is in Oxford, Mississippi, on the square, with no place to go for Christmas, and the inn, in this case the Hotty Totty Motel, is so full that they rent him a tent in the parking lot with a cot and an electric blanket.

Later that night, though, he does receive a Christmas gift: he is invited to a party and meets Desiree, a New York City girl who is willing to go home with him to his tent and celebrate the nativity.

There are a couple of long stories here that I especially liked, but again they are not heartwarming either. The always reliable veteran Doris Betts has contributed "Whose Child Is This," set in North Carolina. A childless couple, Olivia and Curtis, a couple going through the stresses of infertility procedures and indignities, live next door to an old, possibly senile woman, Patty Bell, called Pattybell. She is eccentric--very, alone in the world, and her house burns down. The story ends with Olivia taking in Pattybell, who, we can see, will be the child she and Curtis will probably never have. The point here, I guess, is that "family" is any group, however unlikely, that gives comfort to one another.

Michael Knight, a relative newcomer to Southern letters, has contributed a long story, "Ponies for Christmas." The protagonist, Frank, is spending the holidays with his brother Ted and Ted's family. The brothers don't get along very well. Is Frank gay? I don't know. Their father won't join them because he's angry at the boys for not mourning their deceased mother long enough.

Ted is a materialistic, shallow fellow who doesn't understand his wife or his twin daughters at all and spoils the girls with gifts, in this case an actual, honest-to-god pair of Christmas ponies. I thought it was just a metaphor. I didn't know that there were children who asked for ponies at Christmas and actually got them. Anyway, the house is so full of tension that you really can't wait for the holiday visit to be over. That makes it fairly realistic, no?

In Carolyn Haines' story, "The Perfect Tree," a sister, Rita, is visiting her brother, Richard, who is dying, and has a last wish for a hard-to-get Christmas tree. And Nanci Kincaid has contributed a story, "The Gift of Lies," in which a mother has deserted her husband and children to run off with another man. The story makes explicit that, concerning the holidays, the best and kindest way to get through them is to lie to one another. "Your mother really loves you," the children's father tells them. "I bet she wishes she was here with us on a day like this."

These are pretty good stories, and they are, in a painfully realistic way, Christmas stories. But I could have stood to be touched by an angel at least a little bit.

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