Review: Christmas After All

Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932 (Dear America)Christmas After All
by Kathryn Lasky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Christmas After All (The Great Depression) / 0-439-21943-4

"Christmas After All" brings us both the best and worst views of the American Great Depression, showing us the kindness and strength of the people who lived through this difficult period, but never holding back the despair and troubles of the homeless, the suicidal, and the starving.

There's a great deal of good to be had here. Minnie's rather large family is hit badly by the Depression and the layouts and business closures. They are further burdened by the arrival of an orphaned distant relation, who is the same age as Minnie. Minnie is shocked to find that her new "sister", fresh from the dust bowl, has never heard of "Buck Rogers" or Greta Garbo, yet she learns that her 'ignorant' cousin has much to teach her, in terms of faith, hope, and love. As Minnie's family visits the local shantytowns to give food and toys to the less fortunate (and to mend their tire 'houses' so that they won't collapse and kill the occupants), Lasky paints a bleak and stark view of the Depression, relieved only by charity and human kindness.

"Christmas After All" is not, however, without minor faults. The diarist's family is just a little too special, too precocious to be believable. Adelaide (or "Lady") is a rebellious flapper who goes to a private girl's school (how do they afford it?) to curb her behavior. She is terrible at her schoolwork, but she can sew Hollywood fashions (and some of her own designs!) in sheer minutes (where do they buy the material?) and everything she makes is stunning, professional, and cutting edge. Minnie's older sisters are lovely and smart and study abroad in Europe, when the family can afford it. Minnie's orphaned cousin can draw advanced pencil drawings of just about anything and creates professional-grade picture books for Christmas presents. Minnie's brother, on the other hand, is a boy genius who can make anything out of wires and capacitors and - later - becomes the subject of her father's radio drama. Of course her father can write radio dramas - he just needed to be laid off from Accounting to live the dream. And Minnie looks just like Amelia Earhart and - of course - grows up to become a pilot in the Air Force, courtesy of the Epilogue. All this Mary Sue-ism is a bit cloying, but the reader recognizes that Lasky is likely trying to soften the bleakness of the Depression for young readers. Older readers, however, may find it a little too sticky sweet for consumption.

Older readers may also be distressed at the concept of finances in this book. I had to check the cover several times to reassure myself that, yes, this book is set during the Great Depression. Oh, the shantytowns are here, and the layoffs, and the bad food (no money for meat at the dinner table), and the general dread and fear. Yet why does Minnie's family have money to go to the movies two or three times a week? Why are they buying capacitors and clothing material like it's going out of style? How can they afford a private school to "straighten out" the antics of a girl whose most rebellious behavior appears to be bleaching her hair (and where did she come up with the money for that?)? And when the father appears to have abandoned them when he's really off pitching a radio drama that will make the family very well off (he didn't tell anyone because he didn't want to get their hopes up), only to return unexpectedly just in time for Christmas with full stockings for everyone, well, let's just say that the story feels too contrived and forced.

This isn't a bad book and I recommend it heartily as good historical fantasy for children. But unlike most of the other Dear America books, I doubt many adults will find much here except a quick, saccharine read before returning firmly to reality. Whether or not that is a good thing is entirely a personal choice, I think.

~ Ana Mardoll

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