DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

Nov. 23, 2011

SELECTION TWO

THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL

by

ABBIE FARWELL BROWN

 

 


 

 

DICKENS AND BROWN

 

If the truth must be told, I almost chose Dickens’ Christmas Carol as our December selection, but had second thoughts because Connie and I concluded that most of you would have already read it.  If it should turn out that you have not, I have a suggestion: In such a case, since both The Christmas Carol and The Christmas Angel are quick reads, I suggest that you read Dickens’ great classic first, for all modern Christmas stories graft on to Christmas Carol.

I was privileged to partner with Focus on the Family and Tyndale House in twelve classic books: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1997) and Little Men (1999); Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1997), and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1999); Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1997), Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis (2000); Grace Richmond’s The Twenty-fourth of June (1999); Gene Stratton Porter’s Freckles (1999); Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1999); Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Christmas Angel (1999); and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol 1997) and David Copperfield (1999).  For each of these I wrote a modest biography of the author (averaging 60 – 80 pages in length) as well as discussion questions placed at the back of the book for individual readers, parents, teachers, and homeschoolers.  And we featured the oldest or best set of illustrations we could find.

All these books have long since gone out of print, however, we still have sale copies available (new condition) for almost all of them should you be interested in purchasing them from us.  Since I’m hoping that you’ll either re-read or read for the first time The Christmas Carol, I’m featuring part of my introduction/biography: ‘Scrooge at the Crossroads.”

I cannot remember when I first heard it read . . . nor when I first read it . . . nor when I first experienced it on film . . . nor even when it first engulfed me as live drama. . . .  I only know that looking back through life, somehow — I know not how — Christmas Carol was always there.

In the annals of literature there is nothing like it.  Certainly there was nothing like it before Dickens wrote it in 1843 — since then, many have tried to imitate it.  But the great original still stands, alone and inviolate — the Rock.

Can Christmas possibly be Christmas without it?  Many there be who would answer in the negative: somehow, to conclude even one Christmas season without re-experiencing the story would be to leave that year incomplete.

In the century and a half since it was published, we have come to take it for granted: we just accept it as if it had always been with us: like Wise Men, creches, and holly.  What would the world, after all, be like without Scrooge, Marley, the Cratchits, the Three Ghosts, Bah! Humbug! and Tiny Tim?  Well, in the year of our Lord, 1842 — none of those yet existed.

So what was 1843 like for Charles Dickens?  Simply and succinctly put: not good.  It was about time for it to be “not good.”  Let’s step back in time — and I’ll explain.

As we can see in the bio, Dickens endured a tough childhood — a mighty tough childhood.  Then, at the age of 25, he was catapulted to the top of his world.  It is always dangerous to soar too high too young: it usually results in a strong case of King of the Mountain hubris — unless the 25-year-old is strong and wise beyond his years; unless he realizes, with Nebuchadnezzar, how quickly the God who giveth can become the God who taketh away; even more importantly, unless he realizes that, in life, nature ‑‑, and apparently, God ‑‑ abhors long plateaus.  In other words, today’s Success is already unrealizingly sowing the seeds of its own destruction.  This was true with Dickens.  He had assumed, as had that great Babylonian king before him, that he had become king and great all by himself ‑‑ by the sheer brilliance of his mind and force of his will.  Both of which he had an oversupply of.

Perhaps a baseball analogy would help.  In 1836, he stepped up to the plate, and hit Boz out of the park.  Next, he hit Pickwick out of the park.  Then Oliver Twist, then Nickelby, then The Old Curiosity Shop, then Barnaby Rudge, which just cleared the outer wall.  Then came his ill-fated trip to America, and when his bat made contact with American Notes, he only hit a bloop single, not even realizing that he now had a hairline crack in the bat.  That was followed by Martin Chuzzlewit ‑‑ and with it, he broke his bat.

For the first time in seven years, he was in trouble.  He had mistakenly assumed that, being King of the Hill, he could say anything he darn well pleased.  That he could travel to the late great colony of America and noblesse oblige himself all over the place.  Since Americans were too cheap to pay him his due royalties, he could just tell them where to go.  To put his condition in modern vernacular, he had an attitude problem.  Even his countrymen felt, this time, that he had gone too far.

The result: the golden faucet ‑‑ that had gushed its riches upon him for almost seven years ‑‑, now slowed its flow so much he wondered if perhaps his well was going dry.  Even worse, what if it was dry?  What if people would no longer buy his books?

Dickens was never much of a humble man: he knew to a penny the value of his gifts.  Or had known prior to 1842.  Now, he didn’t know any more.

Well, what could he write that would improve his fortunes, and help bring back his fickle audience?  Something he could write quickly, not just another two-year book serialization.  So the idea for Christmas Carol came to him (see bio).  For a month and a half he totally immersed himself in the world of Scrooge.  In the process, he gradually became aware that, somewhere along the way, he had become a Scrooge himself: had felt himself so secure in his gifts that he no longer needed other people, that he no longer needed to really care (not just abstractly, but one-on-one) about human need.

In the course of writing the story of Scrooge, Dickens was able to pull himself back from the brink, to realize his need of others.  He began to wonder if he any longer knew ‑‑ or if he ever had ‑‑ who he really was.  Could he even know without going backwards in time?

The answers to those questions were a long time in coming, but A Christmas Carol was the first step, the four other Christmas books represent additional steps, but the biggest steps were Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Yet something else happened during the writing of the little book: he learned a great deal about the difference between writing a lean cohesive book (written all at once) and writing the usually episodic, rambly, serialization book.

As a result of this no man’s land between the hubris of his youth and the social conscience of his maturity, he was able to make it the rest of the way through his life without ever again seriously daring hubris.  He was able to find out things about himself that stripped away some of his teflonish pride.  And sorrow would rock him on his heels again and again.

So it came to pass that in the last quarter of his life, in his 450 public readings (for fifteen long years, having an average of one public reading performance every twelve days), the story of Scrooge became as indispensable as singing the national anthem at a big league baseball game ‑‑ unthinkable to close without it.  And as his life drew to a close, a higher and higher percentage of each evening performance was devoted to Christmas Carol and its lesson of agape love.

It is no hyperbole to say that without this one little book, the life of Charles Dickens most likely would have been a very different story.  In a very real sense, then, we may validly say that the characters ‑‑ children, if you will ‑‑ conceived by this author ended up by taking him on a long journey . . . that would take the rest of his life.

And it is our privilege to be invited along.

Welcome to the timeless world of Christmas Carol.

ABBIE FARWELL BROWN AND

THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL

I have always loved Christmas stories — especially the heart-tugging kind.  And, let’s face it, sentiment and Christmas belong together.  Of all the seasons of the year, the heart is openest to love, empathy, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, and change . . . at Christmas.

Thousands of authors have written stories about Christmas, but sadly, most of them are shallow, sterile, and un-moving.  These stories may be technically brilliant, but if they fail to engage the heart, I view them as failures.

Only a few have written “great” Christmas stories, and even fewer have written “great” Christmas books (usually novelette length rather than full book length, as Christmas books are rarely very long).  And of those few special Christmas books which percolate to the top, very very few manage to stay there, but gradually, over time, sink down into that vast subterranean sea of forgotten books.  To stay alive, season after season, generation after generation, presupposes a magical ingredient no critic-scientist has ever been able to isolate.  Just think about the ones that come to mind: The Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, Its a Wonderful Life, The Other Wise Man . . . , and, with these four, we begin to sputter and qualify.  There are many others that come to mind, but none of them has been able to stay in the top ranks of Christmas Best Sellers.  In recent years, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (1972) and Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box (1993) have so far evidenced staying power, but only time will reveal whether they will stay there, for it is comparatively easy to stay alive for ten, twenty, even thirty years ‑‑, it is much much harder to remain vibrantly alive 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years or more.

But, none of this precludes comebacks.  Literature and public taste are, after all, cyclical, thus even during authors’ lifetimes, reputations roll along on roller-coasters, undulating up and down as public tastes and demands change.  No one remains hot forever.  Along this serpentine track of survivors rumble authors such as Dickens, Dostoevsky, Hugo, Cooper, Scott, Stevenson, the Brontes, Twain, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Alcott, Shakespeare, Carroll, Chaucer, Defoe, Dante, Dumas, Eliot, Kipling, and Thoreau — these never go out of vogue.

Once past the immortals, we move into a much more fluid field.  Depending on many factors, recoveries and resurrections continue to take place.  Usually because certain works brazenly dig into our memories and impudently refuse to leave.   Which brings us to Abbie Farwell Brown.

It was some years ago when I first “met” her.  My wife and I were wandering around New England at the height of fall colors.  Ah, autumn in New England!  There are few experiences in life to match it.  Among those few are New England used bookstores.  Well, it was in one of these that Connie discovered an old book — and short — with the intriguing title of The Christmas Angel.  She brought it over to me and asked if I was familiar with it or with the author.  I was not, but on the strength of the wonderful woodcut illustrations, we bought it.  Upon our return home, I unpacked it, then sat down to read it — and LOVED it.  Such velcro sticking power does it have that it has pummeled me until I am black and blue from its demanding to be brought back to the top, where it keeps telling me it belongs!  It was there once, and liked it, but, through no fault of its own, readers who loved it died off, so it began its gradual descent into that ultimate oblivion.

So here it is, if for no other reason than to rescue my battered body from its continuous pummeling.  I don’t often creep out far enough on limbs to risk getting sawed off, but I shall make an exception for The Christmas Angel.  I shall be really surprised if it does not claw its way back to the top — and stay there, this time.  It has all the enduring qualities that has kept The Christmas Carol up there for over a century and a half — in fact, one manuscript reader told me, about a week ago, that she even prefers it over The Christmas Carol.  It is one of those rarities: a book that should be loved equally by all generations — from small children to senior citizens.  I can see it being filmed; and I can see it becoming a Christmas tradition: unthinkable to get through a Christmas season without reading it out loud to the family once again.

Since the story is divided into 15 short chapters, it would lend itself to being spread out during the Advent or the Twelve days of Christmas.  Having said that, I’ll prophesy that pressure to read on by the listeners might make a proposed time table difficult to stick with.

And, unquestionably, the Reginald Birch illustrations add a very special dimension to the book.

When Christ wished to hammer home a point, He told a story, a parable, an allegory — in fact, biblical writers tell us He never spoke without them.  This is just such a story.  But, coupled with that is something else: it is one of the most memorable and poignant Angel stories I have ever read.  And it is amazing how many people today are rediscovering Angel stories!

It has to do with Miss Terry — bitter, cold, bigoted, and unforgiving.  As was true with Dickens’ Scrooge, in her life virtually all sentiment, caring, and love had been discarded, then trampled on, in her morose journey through the years.  And now, at Christmas, but one tie to her past remains, one key that might unlock her cell block of isolation: her childhood box of toys.

She determines to burn them, — every last one.

* * * * *

It is my personal conviction that reading both books this Christmas season will result in one of the richest Christmas seasons you have ever known.  And it will amaze me if you don’t end up loving The Christmas Angel at least as much as The Christmas Carol.

In my introduction/biography for The Christmas Angel I piece together Brown’s fascinating life story and list all her books and short stories.  I’m guessing many of you will wish to track down and purchase her other books as well as this one.

Be sure and journal each time you read from these books.

At the back of my edition are seven pages of questions to deepen your understanding.  Such as these:

Chapter One: “Alone on Christmas Eve” – What is the impact of that line?  Why is it harder to be alone on Christmas Eve than at other times?  Or is it?”

Chapter Four: “Why is it, do you think, that so few toys survive intact?  Are they deliberately mistreated, or does it just happen”

Chapter Six: “Why did Miss Terry rescue the Christmas angel from the muddy street, and why did she find it impossible to toss it into the fire as she had so many other toys?”

Chapter Nine: “Why is it, do you think, that toys have greater reality to children than they do to adults?  How is that borne out in this chapter?”

Chapter Fourteen: “How do Angelina’s Christmas angel and her guardian angel blur together?”

LAST SUGGESTIONS RE WRIGHT’S CALLING OF DAN MATTHEWS

More and more people keep expressing interest in The Book Club.  When you notify us that you wish to join, please email that information to us so we can add you to the roster.  If you feel uncomfortable posting your mailing address on the web, just drop it in the mail to me at P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.  Send me your name, interests, reading preferences, and other items that will help me chart the direction of The Book Club.

After securing a copy of each month’s book, be sure and journal each time you read from the book.

Following are some observations and suggestions re your reading our November selection: Harold Bell Wright’s The Calling of Dan Matthews:

1.  I first read it when I was seventeen.  Why do you think it had such a powerful impact on me?  (On others as well?)

2.  How is it different from other religion-based novels you’ve read?

3.  Wright wrote three Social Gospel novels.  Look up the term, then respond in terms of how the book incorporates the movement’s key elements.  In other words, Christ, in His life on this earth, was not at all into doctrine or creeds, but rather into selfless service for others.  So, did Wright pull it off?

4.  Did reading this book have an impact on you personally?  In what way?

5.  Did reading the book make you want to read more Wright books?

            SECURING DECEMBER’S BOOKS

You will have no trouble finding a copy of Dickens The Christmas Carol, for it is one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  But if you’d like to order my Focus/Tyndale edition, just write me at Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433, or send me an email at “mountainauthor@gmail.com.”  Should you wish me to inscribe any copies, just let me know—there will be no charge for that.  The Christmas Angel is likely to be more difficult to secure, but again, I can supply you with a copy.

PRICE: $16.99 each.  However, if you alert me to your being a member of our book club, you can reduce it to $14.00 each.  If you purchase both books, I’ll reduce the price to $25.00 total.  Shipping will come to $6.00 extra.

I’ll need your full name and mailing address.  Checks are fine.  So is PAYPAL. For further information, access our website at

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll journey to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

ST MARTIN / SINT MAARTEN

After three days at sea, we were more than ready for the palm-fringed hills of St. Martin looming out of the mists. It was humid; not surprising given that the further south from Fort Lauderdale one sails, the closer to the equator—and hence ever more humid it becomes. Each day, as we did our laps on the top deck, we sweat more. Finally I learned my lesson: take my laps early in the morning—then return to the room, remove wet clothes, and shower.

THE ISLAND’S HISTORY

Before long, Phillipsburg came into view. The island bears the distinction of being the world’s smallest land mass to be shared by two countries: The Netherlands and France. Columbus it was who named it, passing by it on Nov. 11, 1493; since that was the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, so he named it.

It has had a turbulent history, repeatedly being invaded by one European power after another; in fact, borders changed sixteen times in 150 years! Finally, the Dutch and the French outlasted all others and settled into an uneasy joint tenancy. According to legend, this is how they finally divided up the place:

Concluding that settling the matter with blunderbusses (ponderous muskets much more likely to maim the gunman than the victim) was an awfully messy way to settle border issues, they selected one representative from each side, had them stand back to back, then walk in opposite directions on the coastline until they met face to face on the other side of the island. As it turned out, the Frenchman supposedly walked considerably faster than the Dutchman, consequently the French ended up with the biggest piece of the pie. Some say that the Frenchman quenched his thirst along the way with French wine while the Dutchman imbibed the more potent Dutch gin, contributing no little to his slower gait. Others with more suspicious minds point out that when the 1648 Treaty of Concordia was signed, the French had a more powerful navy. But be that as it may, the two countries have coexisted rather peacefully ever since.

The island itself is known as St. Martin, the northern part is a subprefecture of Guadaloupe (an overseas department of France) and the southern part is the northernmost part of the Netherlands Antilles, which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. There are no border crossings anywhere in this small island. Officially, there are approximately 27,000 people living on the French side and 32,000 on the Dutch side. But, complicating the situation no little are the 16,000 to 20,000 illegal aliens on the island, many from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In fact, only about 20% of the islanders were born on the island.

We would notice the same fluidity population-wise in other Caribbean islands, yet each “islander” we interacted with while visiting a given island, appeared to take genuine pride in being a local. Of course, tourism, being today by far the largest cash crop, has generated a good share of these migrations. And St. Martin is one of the Eastern Caribbean’s most popular islands, no small thanks to its famous white sand beaches, attractive lodgings, good restaurants, and two distinctly different cultures.

Ever wonder how the legendary governor of the New Amsterdam (later New York) colony, Peter Stuyvesant, got his famous peg-leg? Wonder no longer: in 1644, during one of the invasions of St. Martin, this intrepid Dutchman lost a leg to a cannon ball.

On September 4, 1995, St. Martin took a direct hit from Hurricane Luis, that roared across the island with 130 mph winds, causing a billion dollars damage. Hundreds of boats were shattered, thousands of homes and businesses had their roofs blown off, many simply disintegrating. Needless to say, the tourism-based economy was also in shambles. Ever so gradually, the islanders have rebuilt and most of the hotels have reopened.

REACTIONS

Marigot Harbor on the French end of the island

The Constellation docked in Phillipsburg, and from there I boarded a bus for a tour of the island. It doesn’t take long. Most all the population crowds into Marigot on the French side and Phillipsburg on the Dutch side. While both sides have their unique differences and distinctiveness, I couldn’t help but notice that the Dutch side appeared to be both cleaner and more prosperous than the French side. Certainly shoppers found the south side more rewarding than the other. In fact, it was surprising to discover how few of our shipmates even ventured to the French side.

There was lots of company in the harbor: two Norwegian ships (one the monstrous Epic), two Celebrity ships, a Disney ship, and so on. At any given moment, most of those passengers could be found elbowing their way through the duty-free shops.

On my tour bus—the Riffels took another bus—, we were blessed with a superb tour guide named Dahlia. I have discovered that, more than any other factor, tour guides make or break a given trip. Dahlia more than made the visit to her beloved island worth-while, filling us in on lore, history, stories, etc. Proudly, she pointed out that celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Aretha Franklin have homes here.

My seatmate was a sweet college freshman from Buenos Aires. Daniela knew very little English, but fortunately I knew Spanish, so we got along fine. A public relations major, she was being rewarded for her good grades by this cruise; family members ensconced in adjacent seats, obviously relieved that her seatmate spoke Spanish, soon ceased worrying about her. Daniela was the exception age-wise, as it being January, most of our shipmates were considerably older than she—very few children or young couples.

Dahlia urged us all to cone back! Clearly, cruisers are anything but a luxury to islanders, but rather the difference between survival—and not. To most of them, we were all “rich.” And, according to third world standards, we were.

Shopping in Phillipsburg

As to my reactions, both harbor cities were lovely. But tourist destinations, not just in the Caribbean but around the world, all suffer from a blighting same ol’ same ol’ness. First-timers almost invariably cart home a lot of kitschy items they’ll never look at again. Their general quality, sad to say, varying very little from country to country. But, here and there, astute travelers track down items of enduring value that will stand the test of time.

Most valuable of all, surprisingly, are post cards, for without them to provide identification for all the hundreds of photos you take, resulting photo albums will end up structureless and devoid of significance.

Back on the ship, those who truly love traveling can be counted on to climb the stairs to the top deck so they can take in the magic of leaving the port—more often than not around sunset. That first puff of smoke from the smokestack, the casting off of the rope tentacles, the deep mournful blasts from the mighty horn, the interchange of waves between passengers on the leaving ship and those waiting for their turn in line, are always poignant.

As Phillipsburg slowly receded from view, I wondered if we’d ever return. I sighed, because life is so short, and there are so many wonderful places we’ve yet to see!

* * * * *

Next stop is Antigua.

THE CLOCK OF LIFE

“The clock of life is wound but once
And no one can tell you when the hands will stop
At late or early hour;
Now is the only time you have;
Live, love, toil with a will;
Place no confidence in tomorrow
For the clock may then be still.”

Author Unknown

This powerful little poem I positioned at both the beginning and ending of my most recent Christmas story, “The Clock of Life” in Christmas in My Heart 18 (Pacific Press, 2009); in that story, I fictionalized my own recent close call. Over an 18-month period, my body began shutting down on me. Finally, my doctor took one look at my yellow skin and gave me two hours’ notice before checking in at a hospital E.R, Then it was a race against time to find out what was wrong before it was too late.

During those long days and much longer nights, when the clock on the wall above my bed seemed to take forever to indicate one lone minute had passed, I had plenty of opportunities to Monday-morning quarterback my life: Was my life over, my race done? Had I accomplished all I had hoped to in this short soap opera we label “life”? Was I at peace with God? Had I told my wife and children often enough how very much I loved and cherished them? Was my house in order (ready for an exhaustive audit)? If my body continued to close shop on me, was I ready to tie up all the loose ends of my life? Was my wife Connie prepared to shoulder the entire burden of life alone? What could she do with the massive library that has made our 71 books possible? Did I have fences I needed to mend before it was too late? How was I doing on my Bucket List? Did I have any major regrets? Most important of all . . . was I ready to meet my Maker?

After much prayer, I was convicted that I should pour all these variables into my 18th Christmas story. And “The Clock of Life” proved to be the perfect catalyst.

* * * * *

Several days ago, I was debriefing by phone with Tim Kubrock (principal of Monterey Bay Academy) over the alumni breakfast the week before; more specifically, my remarks to the alumni.

Because of all I have gone through during the last couple of years, I was especially conscious of just how fragile is our hold on life—and, by extension, how little time we have in which to accomplish our goals. I used to take all this for granted. I most certainly do not any more.

And so I urged my fellow alumni to not delay in their giving to this school that contributed so much to us in the morning of our lives. I was painfully blunt: “You know, each year we lose more of our beloved classmates—most likely, never on earth will all of us in this room assemble together again. So please don’t delay in your support of our alma mater.”

All this the principal and I referenced in our chat.

Then he told me, “I’ve got to tell you about an experience I had in my office about 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon. A 50th anniversary alum walked in (I could tell by the honor ribbon on his shirt). Well, he just wanted to talk about the academy, life in general, his own children (who’d also attended the academy), and some painful things I can’t share. Before he left, I felt impressed to offer prayer for him and his family: that the Lord would help to heal the brokenness in his family. When he got up to leave, there was a softness and peace in his face that had not been there when he came in.

There was then a long silence. . .

Followed by a sigh . . . and

“He died last Friday.”