Book Review: A Christmas Memory

When I finally—after years of meaning to read it—ordered Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory from eBay, I did not expect what I got. Full disclosure: I have not read Capote, ever. I have meant to, of course, but have never gotten around to it. Yet. My impression, however, is true crime with a literary swagger. A Christmas Memory is a short story that has been turned into a children’s picture book, several times. I did know the story was short, but not short enough to be a children’s picture book. And I wasn’t even clear that what I bought was a picture book. But lo and behold, there it is on my dresser: a Truman Capote Christmas picture book.

Cover image from Amazon.com

I also knew that this particular story was a Christmas classic. Like Skipping Christmas (see previous review) it graces the top of all the Christmas books lists, with no regard for its brevity or intended audience. Is it even meant for children? It is based on Capote’s own quirky, 1930s childhood, a true story, imbibed with something of a Christmas spirit: a bittersweet nod to familial love and down-home traditions. It is about a child and an old woman. When illustrated, it is clearly meant for children. As a short story, it can appeal to a very wide range of readers (having first appeared in a women’s magazine). It has strains of more serious things: aging, death, disability, drunkenness, abandonment, poverty… but this makes the whole thing sound much more serious than it comes across. The story itself is light and sweet and except for the part where the older relative procures alcohol during the Prohibition and gets a little drunk with the kid, it wouldn’t need much explanation.

The story in a nutshell: a boy (who was Capote) lives with a houseful of elder cousins after his parents have abandoned him. All of the cousins are somber and strict except for one. She appears to be developmentally delayed and looked down upon, but she is the boy’s best friend and confidant—she and the family dog. They have a few Christmas adventures together, all part of their usual traditions: collecting walnuts, making and sending fruit cakes, exchanging gifts, flying kites… though between the two of them and their combined childishness, nothing is ever done without an eyebrow-raising flourish. They have a moving, if unconventional, friendship that is the center of this story, which is a “memory” of a young man, walking across a college campus shortly after his friend’s death.

I guess I can see why there are fans of A Christmas Memory, but I can’t say it was a favorite of mine. It’s going into the small pile of Christmas books that I keep with the decorations and pull out every year, and I would recommend it. Perhaps, as usual, I was expecting too much. I think I was expecting better writing. But the writing is solid, straight-forward, and, well, I have to keep coming back to the word “sweet” because that is what this story is. Sweet and a little sad. Old fashioned and perspective-giving. And despite its allusions to church and heaven, it exists outside religion as a Christmas story: it’s purely secular, at heart.

There was a made-for-TV movie aired first in 1966 that was narrated by Truman Capote and won several accolades. A 1997 Hallmark movie did fairly well but is not supposed to be as good as the original. The story has been adapted many other times, notably read by Capote for NPR and as a 2010 Broadway musical. I have not seen or listened to any of them, and neither of the movies are available on my streaming services (unless I buy the 1997 version).

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