Once again, I am several reviews behind; there are actually five books I have finished reading but not yet written a review for, three of which were read before and around Christmas.
# 30: Nibsy's Christmas
by Jacob August Riis
First published 1893
Sounds like a rather old-fashioned, maybe sickly sweet read, the way children's books in Victorian times often were, right?
Nibsy is not a little boy or fairytale character such as a goblin or dwarf, starring in a Christmas tale aimed at three- to five-year-olds.
No, he is a poor boy selling papers for a living, at home in an overcrowded, dirty, bug-infested New York tenement typical for the time and place. He has a violent father and a suffering mother, barely able to keep her youngest baby alive.
Nibsy himself has not adopted his father's bad ways but somehow managed to keep a kind heart and good moral standards. When just before Christmas he has once more failed to sell all his papers and is threatened by his father, he leaves home to find a sheltered place for the cold winter night, not knowing that he will never come back.
There are several more such stories in the book, all of them sad, all of them describing the horrendous circumstances under which poor children were struggling to survive.
It was NOT a cosy Christmas read but actually rather depressing - and that was the author's intention.
The unexpected direction of this book made me look him up. Wikipedia has a lot to say about him here.
Jacob Riis was a social reformer, journalist and photographer, who used pen and camera to raise awareness of the terrible conditions under which the poor were living.
Himself not a stranger to poverty, he tried to initiate a change for the better by exposing the true face of the tenements.
# 31: The Lost Word A Christmas Legend of Long Ago
by Henry Van Dyke
First published in 1898
A complete change of tone and setting to my previous read, "The Lost Word" tells the story of Hermas, who has become one of the first Christians in what today is Turkey. He has a crisis of faith, and strikes an unusual deal to have his life revert back to its former luxuries and carefree state. But something is missing...
This was not a Christmas read in the traditional sense, but very religious - definitely not for everyone. I enjoyed the quality of the language more than the actual story, which was rather foreseeable.
Here is what Amazon says about the author:
Henry Van Dyke was an American writer, lecturer, and
clergyman. Educated at Princeton, he returned to the school after his graduation as a Professor of
English Literature and became an elected member of the American Academy
of Arts and Letters. In 1913 he was appointed by President Woodrow
Wilson, his former classmate, as the ambassador to the Netherlands and
Luxembourg, a job that he maintained throughout the First World War. After a lifetime of public
service and religious leadership, Henry van Dyke died in 1933 at the age
More about the author can be found here.
# 32: Evenings at Donaldson Manor
or, The Christmas Guest
by Maria J. McIntosh
First published in 1850
This was the most "christmassy" of the three Christmas books I read. It is divided in chapters of individual stories, all within a frame: The setting is the country house of the Donaldson family, where the author is staying for Christmas and New Year along with several other guests, friends and relatives of the hosts.
Every evening, the group make their own entertainment by appointing someone to tell a (preferably true) story, or they arrange a costume play, show drawings or sing and play music.
Some of the stories are rather interesting. My favourite was the one where the narrator is a young man living in a remote part of the United States, where it is his pleasure in winter to skate on the frozen river by his log cabin. One night he is skating again under the moonlit sky, when a pair of wolves consider him as easy prey. The chase is on...
The description of the icy, snowy, moonlit landscape and how the young man feels when he realises that his life is truly at stake are so well described, I could easily picture it all in my mind.
Maria McIntosh lived from 1803 to 1875 and became a writer to support herself financially, after she lost her fortune in an economy crisis. Like most of her contemporaries, her stories were supposed to teach moral lessons. In my case, I don't know how much "better" a person I am for having read this - I simply enjoyed the book as an old-fashioned glimpse into what Christmas and New Year may have been like in a country house back then.