A STUBBORN SWEETNESS AND OTHER STORIES FOR THE CHRISTMAS SEASON. By Katherine Paterson. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. X + 185 pages.
Christmas is a season for sharing stories. We all have our favorites, some of which are brought to life on film or TV. I am personally attracted to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I have been known to allude to both in Christmas Eve services. While the classics are always worth attending to, it is good to engage with new collections of stories (at least new to this reader). While short stories and novels don’t draw my attention as much as more theological and historical works do, I decided to pick up this book by Katherine Paterson and give it a try. The publisher, who often sends me review materials, had sent a review copy of this book some time back. It sat on my shelf for a while, but finally, having been prodded by a Cornelius Plantinga book on Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists, I decided I should read it. I will confess that I'm glad I did, because Katherine Paterson’s stories drew me in.
Katherine Paterson is an awarding winning author, who has received the National Book Award and the Newberry Medal for her children’s books. Although I’ve not read it, she is best known as the author the Bridge to Terabitha. Considering her status as a writer, one should expect high quality, and that is what they will find in this collection. They will also find stories that can move the reader both spiritually and emotionally. These are Christmas specific stories, most of which have been published before in other venues. In addition, Paterson notes that many of them were read by her husband, a minister, to his congregation on Christmas Eve. Therefore, even when not explicitly religious or spiritual they bear witness to the incarnation. One can, if one is open to that possibility, sense the presence of Emmanuel (God is with us).
A theme that appears fairly regularly in the stories is the presence of the stranger, who might be or might not be an angel. It is a reminder, however, of the message of Hebrews that we might on occasion be entertaining angels unawares. Therefore, as my friend and colleague Katherine Willis Pershey has noted in her review of the book:
If you should ever happen to find yourself magically transported into a Katherine Paterson’s A Stubborn Sweetness and Other Stories for the Christmas Season, I have some very important advice for you: pick up the hitchhiker.
While not every story features a stranger or a hitchhiker, who is an angel in disguise, in many of the stories it is in the stranger that one meets Christ or at least has one’s vision of life transformed.
As with any collection of stories, some will touch the reader more than others. I was drawn to several, beginning first story, which is probably why I continued to read the book. In this story entitled “Exultate Jubilate,” a man whose wife goes hyper with Christmas, is simply disinclined to enjoy the season or the Christmas story. While his family goes off to a Christmas Eve service, he stays home. He has one task, which is putting together a rocking horse for his daughter. He is struggling with this task, when a young man, a stranger, knocks on the door. It’s a young man wearing nothing but a windbreaker, he’s bare handed, and carrying a box of Christmas greens. The homeowner needs no greens – the house is fully decorated. In the course of the conversation, against his better judgment, he invites the young man in for coffee. Towards the end a deal is made the stranger will help him put the rocking horse together in exchange for an opportunity to listen to a piece of music by Mozart. The stranger is insistent that the man listen, but he’s wanting to get on with things. Well, he does get drawn into the music, the horse gets completed, the stranger disappears, but lives are changed.
Other stories tell of people facing the prospect of being a person of faith during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or the need to migrate from a Central American country to the United States. In the latter story, entitled “My name is Joseph,” a husband and his pregnant wife flee north because they made the mistake of helping their village feed itself, which makes them communists and puts them in conflict with the ruling powers. They flee to protect their village, but the village is destroyed anyway. Joseph’s wife in the story is pregnant, and bears a child in the back of a truck smuggling them to safety in the United States. Do you see in this a parallel to the story of the slaughter of the innocents? And yes, there are hitchhikers and other strangers who reveal the presence of God. There is humor, sweetness, and sadness. You will be touched, or at least I was. You might even be transformed and look at Christmas differently.
This is a book that captures the Christmas spirit, much like the ones that I’ve always loved. I fully recommend it to you. If you’re so inclined, have a blessed Christmas.