Sunday, June 3, 2012

Book Review: The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas by Madeleine L'Engle (1964)

Every year, the Austins count down to Christmas with an Advent calendar and daily surprises. This year, the Christmas season is especially exciting because seven-year-old Vicky will play the angel in the Christmas pageant, and Mrs. Austin is expecting a baby (Rob) right around the holidays. There is only one problem - what if the baby comes early and Mrs. Austin has to be in the hospital for Christmas? Vicky can’t bear the thought, and wonders how it can be possibly be Christmas if the family isn’t all together.

This novella was originally published in 1964, following The Moon by Night. It doesn’t seem to have any particular significance to the series as a whole, but since I fell in love with the Austins in their first book, I liked reading through this little piece of their family history, which introduces the youngest brother, Rob, into the family. Like all the L’Engle books I’ve read so far, this one upholds the same high standard of literary quality. Though the plot itself is somewhat saccharine, the storytelling appears effortless and immerses the reader in beautiful descriptive language. It’s obvious that this book is intended to evoke all the warmth and coziness young kids associate with Christmas, and because of that, it felt a bit predictable and gimmicky at times, but I didn’t have a real problem with that. Christmas books lend themselves to sentimentality, and I think L’Engle does a nice job of presenting those hokey holiday feelings without becoming too maudlin or mushy.

I also enjoyed the way some of Vicky’s thoughts during this story echo and underscore her reflections in the first two Austin books. The first instance of this happens on page four, when she compares her looks to four-year-old Suzy’s. Even at the age of 7, Vicky is aware that she is “the ugly duckling” who is “skinny and as tall as the eight-year-olds”, with “ long [she keeps] falling”, while Suzy “isn’t skinny, she’s just right.” This same awareness, that Vicky is gawky where her little sister is beautiful , has been a recurring theme in the Austin series thusfar. I also took note of the way Vicky worries about ruining Christmas for her family, as in the passage below from page 7: 

I always seem to spoil things. I look out the long kitchen window at the mountains, thinking: Please don’t let me spoil anything this year.

This feeling of Vicky’s that she is somehow other, and exists separately from the rest of her family, definitely hearkens back to the feelings she articulates in The Moon By Night when her family doesn’t take to Zachary Gray, and gives the reader a glimpse into how this feeling may have developed earlier in her childhood, as Vicky began to understand her place amongst her siblings.

The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas is a perfect holiday read that I might just pick up again when Christmas rolls around this year. It’s also a nice slice of life story for readers anxious to know everything about the Austin family. The illustrations in the 2010 edition are somewhat distracting from the mood of the story, but even their contemporary style doesn’t rob L’Engle’s writing of its charm and nostalgia.

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