When Christmas Comes Again
by Beth Seidel Levine
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
When Christmas Comes Again (World War I) / 0-439-58482-5
The Dear America series are renowned for their compellingly written, fictional diaries that provide a valuable window into important and exciting periods of American history. Each novel is written by its own author, however, and some of the authors are better than others. "When Christmas Comes Again", although not a bad novel by any stretch, manages to fall a little short of the Dear America standard.
Simone Spencer is a bilingual young woman (the novel spans her life from seventeen to her nineteenth birthday) who eagerly ships off to the front lines when the United States joins the first World War, to act as a communication link between the English-speaking allies and the French. Along the way, she suffers more than a few hardships and learns quite a bit about herself and about life.
My largest complaint with this novel is that, unlike the other Dear America novels which feel so vibrant and alive, Simone feels more like a cipher than a real person. Her diary entries are often flat and lifeless, especially compared with another World War I Dear America diary, "A Time For Courage". Where "A Time For Courage" occasionally forgot about the war long enough to talk about cream sodas and other "day to day" matters that a young woman would be interested in, all of Simone's "daily events" entries are prefaced with flat, beleaguered complaints that Simone's life is nothing compared the great war happening across the ocean. The self-flagellation feels unrealistic and dull, and makes Simone feel like a vehicle for the story, a means to get the reader over to the "real action", rather than a character in her own right.
You see this issue jarringly in Simone's strange inoculation from the women's rights issue of the day. Though her best friend is involved in the suffrage movement, and though another communications officer her same age (eighteen) chastises Simone for persisting in calling the female officers "girls" when they are really "women", risking their necks on the front lines to operate the switchboards, Simone persists in calling them "girls" anyway, throughout the novel. The fact that she supposedly agrees with the suffrage movement, and yet doesn't consider the effects of her language (even when it is pointed out to her by another 'girl'), indicates a lack of thought by the author and makes the very few suffrage entries feel "tacked on" as if the main story was already written and then the author just edited in a reference or two as an afterthought. Again, compared to "A Time For Courage", which handles both struggles thoughtfully, this novel just falls short of the mark.
Also non-standard is the implausible love story attached to this story. The traditional Dear America love story, if there is one at all, is of two young people becoming friends and learning to love one another. "When Christmas Comes Again" discards that entirely to go the Hollywood route of Love At First Sight and the book is not better for it. In proper movie fashion, Simone and Sam view each other longingly across the room, and their hearts are bound for eternity. Then they have exactly one (1) obligatory fight, one (1) obligatory reconciliation, one (1) obligatory message that Sam has been blown to kingdom come, and one (1) obligatory hospital scene where Simone discovers that the hospital she is volunteering in is where Sam is recovering and she flings herself into his arms. They have had, if you are keeping count, exactly three (3) conversations in their entire life, but this is Love At First Sight, darnit, and everything works out just fine, because life is neat and clean like that.
All joking aside, I've got nothing against a Love At First Sight stories, but I expect more from the Dear America series, which almost always stress that love is more complicated than that and that friendship is a much more important component of a successful relationship. The cliched nature of Simone's romance just felt awkward and stilted and I can see why this Dear America book isn't as widely circulated as many of the others.
~ Ana Mardoll
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