Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree by Eleanor Estes

Books that you read in childhood tend to live in your memory. Anthropologists may scoff at the old idea that we re-enact the stages of civilization in our own life (and they are doubtless right to do so), but sometimes I think there is an element of truth to this idea. Certainly, when I read about the almost superstitious respect for the written word that most pre-modern people held in common, it reminds me of my own childhood attitude towards books and writing. Anything in type was a fit subject for awe, when I was a child. Consequently I came to every book, article, advertisement and flyer with a receptiveness that I wish I could recapture in my adult life. C.S. Lewis's formula for reading-- "shut your mouth, open your ears and eyes"-- was something I then followed without thinking about it.

Even the titles of books filled me with awe. They were like the names of distant lands. I can still remember my brother describing a book about a Jewish refugee, which was entitled A Boy Called David. The title seemed to drip meaning, pathos, and promise. I can also remember-- and this was into my teens-- being given a list of suggested reading in secondary school. I remember the glamour that hung over the list of titles. One title that always stuck in my head was A Pair of Jesus Boots. I've never read either of those books, and I doubt I ever will, but I still savour the titles.

I think I felt-- on some deep level-- that if books could have a profound meaning, it meant life could have a profound meaning, too.

I remember the wonder with which I approached poetry lessons in school-- my amazement and delight in the idea that you could actually analyze lines of poetry, that you could take poetry as seriously as work or shopping or politics. I remember especially one poem-- the first poem we studied in second year, and a kind of ice-breaker-- by Prunella Power, called "First Day at Boarding School". It wasn't especially good but of course my imagination seized upon it. The line that remains in my memory (referring to the other girls at the boarding school to which a new girl is sent) is:

What did they comprehend
Of Africa's space and silence?

Whenever I want to excite myself about reading poetry, I think of the words "Africa's space and silence", which-- because of the memory they trigger-- do the trick better than lines that are far, far superior.

One of the books that had quite an effect on me as a kid-- and I can't remember how old I was when I read it-- was The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree by Eleanor Estes. It's a short book, easily read a in day even by a slow reader like me. I read it again today, considering it is seasonal. I don't have my original copy, but I bought it again online last year.

My little brother remembered it, too, and he agreed with me about its most salient feature-- it's a curiously melancholy book. It captures, in an almost uncanny way, the mingled excitement and disappointment of childhood-- and, even more than that, its extraordinary rawness.

But it's not a gritty book, or an account of a deprived childhood. It's the story of Marianna, a ten-year-old girl who desperately wants a Christmas tree. Her mother, however, is a contrarian who refuses to be like every "Tom, Dick and Harry". Marianna and her brother Kenny-- who is one year older-- drag home various abandoned Christmas trees (left by college students going home for the holidays) in the hope that they can change their mother's mind. Their mother, however, is having none of it.

The slim story also describes Marianna's friendship with Allie McKaye, a classmate who lives on a barge and is deeply embarrassed and secretive about it. More than anything else, Allie wants to live in a house like every other little girl. More than anything else, Marianna wants to have a Christmas tree like every other little girl.

This obviously gives the story some emotional heft to almost every reader. Who doesn't remember, as a child, yearning to be like everybody else in one way or another?

The most extraordinary thing about this book is its atmosphere. It takes me back to the tempo of childhood-- the expectancy, the uncertainty, the ambivalence of it all. Children spend their lives watching and wondering and guessing. Everything seems to happen with agonising slowness. And if that makes the book sound rather depressing, that would be an unfair impression to give. It also does justice to childhood's excitement, generosity and wonderment.

One thing I especially love is its description of the last day before school, instantly recognisable to schoolchildren everywhere:

"The minute anyone opened the door at P.S. 9 he would know it was Christmas. Smell of pine, sound of carols being rehearsed, pictures on the windowpanes of Santa Claus, wreaths, houses brightly lighted, and angels, children talking out loud and laughing, no one saying 'Be quiet'."

One of the many reasons I'm grateful to work in a university library is that the last day before the Christmas holidays retains an echo of that last-schoolday-before-Christmas atmosphere. Unfortunatey, it only seems a matter of time before the Christmas holidays themselves are whittled away-- down with evil public sector workers!

The portrait of the children's mother is well-done. She never seems to be entirely listening to her kids, preoccupied instead with the newborn baby and the possibility of a letter from her husband who is away on a work trip. She seems entirely oblivious to the cruelty of her ban on Christmas trees. And yet, Estes manages to quite skillfully convey that she is not a negligent or uncaring mother. The book very effectively reminds me of my childhood impression of adults-- beings who could never get excited about anything because they were always too worried about washing, groceries, work or other evils.

Perhaps the most brilliant stroke in the entire book, and the passage that impressed me most even as a child, was this one:

"I'm glad my name is Marianna. Who'm I named after?"

"Your grandmother. That is-- my mother. She died when I was a baby. On Christmas Eve."

"Christmas Eve" said Marianna again. She stood stock still, stunned as though she had had a terrible blow to her head. She looked at her mother as though she saw her for the first time...

Suddenly she felt she didn't know her mother at all. She felt the way she had once when, not expecting to see her, she came upon her in the museum the day Marianna's class was visiting. That time she had had this same funny feeling of knowing, yet not knowing her mother. Her heart had pounded. She didn't want to speak to her. She had pretended she had not seen her. She was awfully familiar and awfully strange at the same time..just like now, when Marianna had learned for the first time that her mother had died on Christmas Eve."

Wow! That knocked me over as a kid. I knew exactly the frame of mind that the author was describing.

The story has a happy ending (which you can pretty much guess from the title). Or has it? As a child, I thought it was a straightforwardly happy ending. Even last year, when I read it again for the first time as an adult, I thought it was. Only this year did I notice a haunting note of ambiguity in the final line:

Because...a coat-hanger Christmas tree is a Christmas tree, isn't it?

The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree is a work of psychological realism for children. Now, I certainly don't think that most books for children should be of this order. Most books for children should be gripping tales full of marvels, like the stories of Roald Dahl, or the utterly wonderful Harry Potter series. In fact, the best children's books are of this kind.

But I certainly think that a work like The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree might stir something slightly different in the hearts of older children, and of adults.

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