Today’s book pick, an excellent choice for a Christmas present, is recommended by my sister, Sarah Johnson:
Yes, this book does contain orphans and dolls, but no, it is not sappy. Ivy is a girl who falls through the cracks of a community’s system of charity– she’s the only orphan at St. Agnes’s not to be invited to a patron’s home for Christmas. She finds herself on a train bound for the Infants Home, the only place available to take her in. But in a moment of nothing-to-lose recklessness, she gets off at a different stop– to look, she says, for her grandmother. In the face of another child’s cruelty, she has insisted that this grandmother lives in Appleton, a name she remembers from somewhere. So when she learns from fellow passengers that Appleton is a real place, she jumps at the chance that her grandmother, too, might be real. She’s young enough to operate in that in-between world where fantasy and actuality are not distinct territories. But what she finds in Appleton– the market in full swing on Christmas Eve– is a sensory feast:
There were stalls of turkeys and geese, fruit stalls with oranges, apples, nuts, and tangerines that were like small oranges wrapped in silver paper . . . A woman was selling balloons and an old man was cooking hot chestnuts. Men were shouting, the women had shopping bags and baskets, the children were running, everyone was buying or selling and laughing. Ivy had spent all her life in St. Agnes’s; she had not seen a market before; and, “I won’t look for my grandmother yet,” said Ivy.
She doesn’t give up the quest, but neither does she pass up this chance to experience everything a market square has to offer. She spends all the money in her pocket on chestnuts and tea and a blue balloon. That’s one reason I say this story isn’t sappy: Ivy isn’t an ideal designed to gratify our emotions; she acts the way a real child might act.
The book is delicious, though, in the perfect weaving-together of its narrative strands, and it has the happiest ending you could ask for. It’s a Christmas story that doesn’t mention the Christ child, yet the mystery of the first Christmas pervades it in a natural, unobtrusive way. Here’s an example: after the market shuts down, Ivy finds shelter in a shed built against the back of a bakery; the oven’s heat, retained by the bricks, is enough to keep her warm through most of the night. This image works beautifully in its own right; only several hours after putting the book down did I recognize the echo of a child sheltered in Bethlehem, “house of bread.”
And not till even later did I see the deeper resonance of Mrs. Jones, the “grandmother” Ivy finds. The narrator tells us, “This is a story about wishing.” What that statement finally means is that it’s a story of grace really given, in spite of being too good to hope for– like the grace promised in the prophecy from Isaiah: “For it is written, ‘be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.’” The sad Mrs. Jones and the lost, wandering Ivy turn out to be very apt representations of fallen mankind. All the emotion of their fulfilled hope is present in the story, but in a quiet, subdued, and very English way.
The Story of Holly and Ivy works wonderfully as a read-aloud for children as young as six. The Viking Kestrel edition, with Barbara Cooney’s luminous illustrations, would make a terrific Christmas gift.