Sunday, January 13, 2013

Book Review: The Birds' Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1886)

Born on Christmas Day, Carol is the youngest member of the Bird family and the only girl. At age ten, she is gravely ill and confined to her bed, expected not to live much longer. Rather than pitying herself, however, Carol is ever mindful of the needs of others, particularly her next door neighbors, the Ruggles family. On the day that turns out to be her last Christmas, Carol hosts a Christmas party for the Ruggles children, complete with dinner and gifts, which the Ruggleses could not have afforded to get for themselves.

This is a saccharine holiday story that would make a perfect Hallmark movie. Only two things prevent it from being unbearable - the language, which is beautiful, especially to read aloud, and the characterization of the Ruggles brood, which is both humorous and sweet.  The story's message of love and giving is very transparent, and only a reader who has never read a book before would be able to read the first couple of chapters without guessing at the ending. Carol has absolutely no flaws outside of her health problems, and her acts of constant charity with no regard for personal gain are admirable, but not very believable. There is something irritating about a perfect fictional child, even one who is very sick, and I think most kids would find Carol pretty dull, even if they might like to attend her party. 

The Ruggleses, though, are more down to earth. Like the Herdmans in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, they lack many of the social graces and luxuries Carol has been given, and their reaction to a formal dinner is one of nervousness and confusion. Their mother warns them to use their best manners, but as most children do from time to time, they manage to forget much of what she told them when they're in the moment. Of everything in the story, kids will relate to these characters most closely, which might make them feel irritated, as I did, that Carol looks upon the Ruggleses with such pity. Their is a definite sense of condescension toward the "less fortunate" in this book that somewhat cheapens the holiday spirit of the story. I'm all for promoting selfless giving, but this book takes it to an extreme.

Christmas books are, by definition, somewhat hokey, and the strength of the author's writing abilities really makes this a story worth reading, even if the drama of it all is somewhat over the top. Keep tissues on hand, as even the most stoic reader is likely to be moved to tears, but also expect to groan in certain places at Carol's purely perfect behavior and personality.  (And please note that for all my complaining, I did give this book five stars on Goodreads. It reads like a classic, and I can forgive it for a lot of its flaws because it's truly a story from another time period, and because it's just so well written.)

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