Kate Douglas Wiggin’s “The Birds’ Christmas Carol”

BLOG #48, SERIES #5
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #36
KATE DOUGLAS WIGGIN’S THE BIRDS’ CHRISTMAS CAROL

November 26, 2014

Each of you—even those I’ve never had the privilege of hearing from—who honor me by being a member of Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club, will no doubt remember that every Christmas I’ve turned back the pages of time to a Christmas book that has warmed my heart down through the years. For our first Christmas (Nov. 23, 2011), we shared two books: Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Christmas Angel –Dickens with his inimitable male Scrooge and Brown with her equally memorable female Scrooge.

A year later (Nov. 28, 2012), we shared Lloyd C. Douglas’s moving Home for Christmas. Then last year (Dec. 4, 2013), we journeyed through the ancient East with Henry Van Dyke’s unforgettable Artaban (The Other Wise Man).

(1888 First Edition)

(1888 First Edition)

 

Now, for our fourth Christmas together, I am finally caving in to all the importuning readers over the last 23 years who have repeatedly urged me to include Kate Douglas Wiggin’s beloved little book, The Birds’ Christmas Carol (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1888) in the Christmas in My Heart® series. I never have, because it is too long, but I can make it our 2014 Christmas book of the year.

St. Luke, of course, told us the greatest Christmas story of all. However, it was left to Charles Dickens, in 1843, to gift the world with the first fictional Christmas book: A Christmas Carol.

Twenty-five years later, Louisa May Alcott brought the four Alcott sisters to life at Christmas time, in Little Women (1868-9). Beth has to be one of the most sentimental and most beloved heroines in all family literature. Just as was true in real life, Beth dies way too young. In my American Literature class discussions, even the macho males who initially groused about having to read “a girls’ book”, after reading it admitted to their classmates that they too had wept over Beth.

Twenty years later (1888) Kate Douglas Wiggin built upon Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Alcott’s depiction of Beth to gift her audience with a Beth-like character of her own—Carol Bird.

The author, Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923) was born in Philadelphia, then the family moved to Hollis, MN. She was homeschooled, then studied at various seminaries and academies. When 17, she joined her family in California; after teaching in Santa Barbara, she moved to San Francisco where she established the first free kindergarten on the West Coast. Her first husband, Samuel B. Wiggin, died young; she later married George C. Riggs. She died in England.

(1929 Popular Edition)

(1929 Popular Edition)

Among her books are The Story of Patsy (1883), The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1888), Timothy’s Quest (1890), The Story Hour (with Nora A. Smith, 1890), Polly Oliver’s Problem (1893), A Cathedral Courtship (1893), Penelope’s Progress (1898), The Story of Waitstill Baxter (1913), Ladies in Waiting (1918), her autobiography, My Garden of Memories (1923), and a number of others. But her reputation rests on two books: The Birds’ Christmas Carol and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Both were bestsellers, but Rebecca swept the nation, no small thanks to two movies: the first (1917) was a silent film with an organ score – Francis Marion wrote a splendid screenplay for it, and kept it faithful to the book. The film was directed by Marshal Neilan and starred Mary Pickford, Eugene O’Brien, Josephine Crowell, Helen Jerome Eddy, Charles Ogle, Marjorie Daw, ZaSu Pitts, and Mayme Kelso. According to Derek Elley, “Mary Pickford plays as she never played before, varying lights and shades to elicit the major interest, tearful at one moment and laughing the next. Her support is flawless, embodying many artists of repute.” The second film (1938) all but abandons the original novel in favor of a bouncy musical. It was directed by Allen Dwan, produced by Raymond Griffith, photoplay by Arthur Miller. It had a star-studded cast: Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, Jack Haley, Gloria Stuart, Helen Westly, Bill Robinson, Phyllis Brooks, Slim Summerville, and William Demarest. As would be expected, Shirley Temple steals the show. The plot: a talented stage child who wins a broadcasting moppet contest.

The Birds’ Christmas Carol was never filmed; nevertheless it benefitted mightily from the two Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms films’ publicity and hype.

You may well ask. Why all the sentimentality in The Birds’ Christmas Carol? Why all the fuss about a girl dying young?

Frontispiece - 1888 Edition

Frontispiece – 1888 Edition

Here’s why: Up until the early 20th century, half of all children died during their childhood or teen years. Since medicine was still in its infancy, sanitation wasn’t even thought of, antibiotics didn’t exist, nostrums were taken seriously, doctors were poorly trained, and hospitals were little used—people tended to be born at home, and die at home. As a result, parents were terrified by any childhood ailment, no matter how minor it might seem. Reason being: there were back then no reliable cures for anything. Most any infliction could end your life. And most women died from childbirth complications because neither doctors nor midwives washed their hands between patients.

Case in point: How well I remember my paternal grandfather, Rollo Wheeler, who though he and Grandma Ruby had eleven children, two of them—little Eva and little Arthur—died young and in his arms at home. So just mention either to him, and he’d weep.

Plus, the 1880s was a most sentimental decade. The traditional family was strong, God and country were celebrated, Father earned the living, and Mother was the almost deified madonna of the home. Children were protected from adult realities and taboos (unlike today). So since death was such an unfathomable mystery, the gradual departure of a young life was both celebrated and sentimentalized.

Offsetting the trauma of Carol’s long decline, Wiggin wisely offset it by the rollicking comic relief represented by the large Ruggles family next door.

Frontispiece: 1929 Edition

Frontispiece: 1929 Edition

 

* * * * *

So, with all this as a preamble, search out an early text. But try to get the Houghton Mifflin original text with original illustrations by H.R.H. But the so-called “Popular Edition” (1929), with color and b/w illustrations by Helen Mason Grose is equally attractive. If at all possible, don’t settle for anything but top condition in this heirloom book. When you read it, block out 21st century realities from your mind and pretend you are a turn-of-the-century reader.

Will be most interested in your reactions.

 

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB GRACE RICHMOND’S THE TWENTY-FOURTH OF JUNE MIDSUMMER’S DAY

BLOG #21, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

GRACE RICHMOND’S THE TWENTY-FOURTH OF JUNE

MIDSUMMER’S DAY

May 23, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of all the thousands of books I devoured during my growing-up years, none did I love more than our June selection: Grace Richmond’s The Twenty-Fourth of June, a paean to Midsummer’s Day (the Feast of St. John the Baptist), at the time of the Summer Solstice.  It is a love story like no other.  The story of a rather arrogant grandson of a millionaire who flits through life with little sense of purpose. Then young Richard Kendrick sees lovely Roberta Gray—and is transfixed.  But she is anything but, where he is concerned.  For dilettantes she has nothing but scorn.

 

Richmond’s unforgettable novel chronicles the clash that takes place when a man falls in love with a woman as beautiful inside as out—a woman not in the least interested in him.  When he persists, she throws down a gage at his feet: if he cares for her at all, he must agree to have nothing to do with her, have no contact with her, send her no gifts—no flowers even—for almost half a year.

 

Until Midsummer’s Day.

 

All the suspense of the novel is woven into the fabric of those months of noncommunication.

 

How it all plays out—well, you’ll have to somewhere, somehow, find a copy of this old book, and read it for yourself.

 

GRACE LOUISE SMITH RICHMOND

(1866 – 1959)

 

Grace was born on March 3, 1866, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to a minister father, the Rev. Dr. Charles E. Smith and mother, Catherine “Kitty” Kimball Smith.  Grace was a direct descendant of the state’s founder, Roger Williams.  An only child, Grace grew up the focal center of her parents’ manse.  In 1885, after having pastored Baptist churches in Mt. Auburn, Ohio; New Haven, Connecticut; and Syracuse, New York, Dr. Smith was called to Fredonia, New York; and there he would remain for the rest of his life.  On Oct. 29, 1887, Grace married the personable young family doctor, Dr. Nelson G. Richmond, who purchased a home next door to the manse.  So after marriage, Grace merely moved next door.  And it was here in Fredonia that the bride would write her many stories, essays, and novels.

 

The home.  It all starts there, the action happens there, and it all ends there.  Because of this, Grace Richmond is known as The Novelist of the Home.”  Of the thousands of writers who have written about the home, only Richmond earned that title.  Only in her fictional world is the home the all-in-all, the core, the bedrock.

 

Among her other beloved books are novels such as The Indifference of Juliet, The Second Violin,

A Court of Inquiry, Red Pepper Burns, Strawberry Acres, The Brown Study, Red Pepper’s Patients, Red and Black, Foursquare, Cherry Square, Lights Up, At the South Gate, the Listening Post, High Fences, and several Christmas novelettes.  She was among the most prolific short story writers in America. Most of her novels were serialized as well.  For 40 years, she was never out of print.  Of the dominant family authors of the first half of the twentieth century, only Zane Grey, Gene Stratton Porter, and Harold Bell Wright were better known than she; and her name ranked up there with Frances Hodgson Burnett, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Pearl S. Buck, Bess Streeter Aldrich, and Temple Bailey.  It was illustrious company indeed.  At the height of her popularity she was paid upward of $30,000 for magazine serializations (a princely sum back then!).  Doubleday would sell more than 2,500,000 copies of her books.

 

THE FOCUS ON THE FAMILY/TYNDALE HOUSE EDITION

 

Of the twelve classic books I edited for our Focus on the Family Great Stories Series, one was The Twenty-Fourth of June.  It was also the first to sell out; consequently, copies have always been scarce for apparently readers appear unwilling to part with the book.  At the front of it is my 55-page biography (which I researched and wrote over a year’s period) and at the back, discussion questions for families, teachers, and home-schoolers.  I also include a complete bibliography of all her books and stories.

 

Candidly, I actually feared returning to a book I’d loved so much when I was young.  I needn’t have worried: I was gripped with the same fascination as before, even though I knew how it all came out.  The title was an inspired choice; there is a symbiotic relationship between the plot and the title—each enhances the other.  How many book titles can you think of which are limited to a month and a day?  Richmond’s genius is that if you can remember the title, you can remember the plot.

 

But it is more than that, because the date represents far more than the cutting of the proverbial Gordian Knot, the denouement; it is the source of all the suspense.  All through the second half of the book, the reader reels back and forth between two questions: Will he make it?  And, if he does make it, will it be enough? I know of no other book that incorporates quite the same structure, the same crescendo, of suspense.

 

Copies are available on the web, both the Doubleday edition and the A. L. Burt reprint edition.  Since it is the rarest Focus/Tyndale classic book, I can’t help much as I have only four copies left (all new, unread) at $95 (I’ll include postage and insurance in that price; and inscribe them personally if requested to do so).