The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree Paperback – 13 December 2016
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- Publisher : Atheneum (13 December 2016)
- Language : English
- ISBN-10 : 0689304161
- ISBN-13 : 978-0689304163
- Item Weight : 340 g
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My little brother remembered it, too, and he agreed with me about its most salient feature-- it's a curiously melancholy book. It captures, in an almost uncanny way, the mingled excitement and disappointment of childhood-- and, even more than that, its extraordinary rawness.
But it's not a gritty book, or an account of a deprived childhood. It's the story of Marianna, a ten-year-old girl who desperately wants a Christmas tree. Her mother, however, is a contrarian who refuses to be like every "Tom, Dick and Harry". Marianna and her brother Kenny-- who is one year older-- drag home various abandoned Christmas trees (left by college students going home for the holidays) in the hope that they can change their mother's mind. Their mother, however, is having none of it.
The slim story also describes Marianna's friendship with Allie McKaye, a classmate who lives on a barge and is deeply embarrassed and secretive about it. More than anything else, Allie wants to live in a house like every other little girl. More than anything else, Marianna wants to have a Christmas tree like every other little girl.
This obviously gives the story some emotional heft to almost every reader. Who doesn't remember, as a child, yearning to be like everybody else in one way or another?
The most extraordinary thing about this book is its atmosphere. It takes me back to the tempo of childhood-- the expectancy, the uncertainty, the ambivalence of it all. Children spend their lives watching and wondering and guessing. Everything seems to happen with agonising slowness. And if that makes the book sound rather depressing, that would be an unfair impression to give. It also does justice to childhood's excitement, generosity and wonderment.
One thing I especially love is its description of the last day before school, instantly recognisable to schoolchildren everywhere:
"The minute anyone opened the door at P.S. 9 he would know it was Christmas. Smell of pine, sound of carols being rehearsed, pictures on the windowpanes of Santa Claus, wreaths, houses brightly lighted, and angels, children talking out loud and laughing, no one saying 'Be quiet'."
The portrait of the children's mother is well-done. She never seems to be entirely listening to her kids, preoccupied instead with the newborn baby and the possibility of a letter from her husband who is away on a work trip. She seems entirely oblivious to the cruelty of her ban on Christmas trees. And yet, Estes manages to quite skillfully convey that she is not a negligent or uncaring mother. The book very effectively reminds me of my childhood impression of adults-- beings who could never get excited about anything because they were always too worried about washing, groceries, work or other evils.
Perhaps the most brilliant stroke in the entire book, and the passage that impressed me most even as a child, was this one:
"I'm glad my name is Marianna. Who'm I named after?"
"Your grandmother. That is-- my mother. She died when I was a baby. On Christmas Eve."
"Christmas Eve" said Marianna again. She stood stock still, stunned as though she had had a terrible blow to her head. She looked at her mother as though she saw her for the first time...
Suddenly she felt she didn't know her mother at all. She felt the way she had once when, not expecting to see her, she came upon her in the museum the day Marianna's class was visiting. That time she had had this same funny feeling of knowing, yet not knowing her mother. Her heart had pounded. She didn't want to speak to her. She had pretended she had not seen her. She was awfully familiar and awfully strange at the same time..just like now, when Marianna had learned for the first time that her mother had died on Christmas Eve."
Wow! That knocked me over as a kid. I knew exactly the frame of mind that the author was describing.
The story has a happy ending (which you can pretty much guess from the title). Or has it? As a child, I thought it was a straightforwardly happy ending. Even last year, when I read it again for the first time as an adult, I thought it was. Only this year did I notice a haunting note of ambiguity in the final line:
"Because...a coat-hanger Christmas tree is a Christmas tree, isn't it?"
The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree is a work of psychological realism for children. Now, I certainly don't think that most books for children should be of this order. Most books for children should be gripping tales full of marvels, like the stories of Roald Dahl, or the utterly wonderful Harry Potter series. In fact, the best children's books are of this kind.
But I certainly think that a work like The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree might stir something slightly different in the hearts of older children, and of adults.