Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann

danse des mirlitons

Ivan Vzevolozhsky’s Nutcracker costume sketch for The Dance of the Reed-Flutes, 1892

Fellow blogger Nathalie Foy offered a fabulous post today: she plans to make an advent calendar of Christmas books, their own or the library’s, and unwrap one each night to be read aloud.

My mind has turned to Christmas too. Just last night N and I looked over our own collection of Christmas books and picked one we added to the pile at this summer’s library sale: The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann, wonderfully illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Most people  nowadays are probably more familiar with the ballet version, which simplified the story a great deal, but also brought it to new life through dance and music. The ballet is hugely popular. I have many friends who see it every year and consider it a Christmas tradition. I remember seeing it here in Toronto about a decade ago, when my lovely niece Sophia was one of the dancers, handpicked from the National Ballet School.

maurice sendak nutcracker

Interestingly, the ballet was poorly received when it was first staged in 1892, one of the main criticisms being that it was not faithful to Hoffmann’s story. We’re just a couple of chapters in, and loving it from the first-page description of Godfather Drosselmeier, a strange family friend with a dark but compelling presence:

“Judge Drosselmeier was anything but handsome. He was short and very thin, his face was seamed with wrinkles, he had a big black patch where his right eye should have been, and he had no hair at all, for which reason he wore a beautiful white wig, a real work of art. And Judge Drosselmeier was himself a skilled craftsman, able to make and repair clocks. When one of the fine clocks in the Stahlbaum house was sick and unable to sing, Godfather Drosselmeier would come over, remove his glass wig and yellow coat, and put on a blue apron. For a while he would stick sharp instruments into the clock. Little Marie felt real pain at the sight. But it didn’t hurt the clock in the least; on the contrary, it came back to life and made everyone happy by whirring and striking and singing merrily.”

Every year at Christmas, Drosselmeier makes gifts “of wonderful artistry” for the children Fritz and Marie — but the gifts are too wonderful, and the parents always put them away for safekeeping, so the children can never actually play with them. On Christmas Eve when the story opens, Drosselmeier offers a magnificent miniature castle with chimes playing, doors opening and closing, and tiny ladies and gentlemen in all their splendour, strolling around rooms aglow in candlelight.

It’s a beautiful creation, but mechanical rather than human, and since the things inside it move like clockwork, with no possibility for surprise, the children quickly lose interest. Fritz turns to his toy hussars, and Marie discovers a nutcracker made in the shape of “an excellent little man…. With Marie it was love at first sight, and the longer she gazed at the sweet little man, the more delighted she was with his good-natured face. His light green, slightly too prominent eyes were also full of kindness, and his well-curled, white-cotton beard was most becoming, as it brought out the sweet smile of his bright red lips.”

The family takes turns cracking nuts with him, but Fritz chooses a huge, hard nut, which breaks the Nutcracker’s jaw. From here, the story turns increasingly strange, as Marie is drawn in to the Nutcracker’s magical world.

franz, post nut crack

Sendak’s illustrations, as always, are delightful. I can’t help but see little Max from Where the Wild Things Are in careless nut-cracking Fritz. These are so different from the images that normally come to mind when I think of The Nutcracker — swirling sugar plum fairies and elegant ballerinas en pointe.

It’s amazing to think that this story was written almost 200  years ago, in 1816, and that now in 2012 I’m curling up with my daughter at night, reading a tale that has lasted all this time. Last year she loved A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and was not at all daunted by the old-fashioned language and the delicious but cumbersome descriptions. So I’m thrilled to add The Nutcracker to our eclectic collection of this season’s books, which includes:

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
The Friendly Beasts by Tomie dePaola
Names for Snow by Judi K Beach
The Huron Carol by Ian Wallace
Bella’s Tree by Janet Russell
The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
The Little Tree by e.e. cummings
The Olden Days Coat by Margaret Laurence
Sadie and the Snowman by Allen Morgan
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
A City Christmas Tree by Rebecca Bond
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

Thanks Nathalie for inspiring this post!

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“I feel joyful, in a strange way”

"There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly ... survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it."

I read a passage that made me weep last night. Just for a moment, with my mouth stretched open in a silent sob. Luckily I was reading to myself and not N, from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I had come to the part when the main character Francie Nolan is born, and her mother Katie asks her own mother for advice on how to escape the vicious cycle of poverty.

“What must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?”

Mary, a working-class, illiterate Austrian immigrant, tells her, “The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day. I know this is the secret.”

That’s good. But that’s not the part that made me cry. Mary goes on to say that Katie must teach Francie the legends of the old country, and tell of “those not of this earth who live forever in the hearts of people—fairies, elves, dwarfs and such,” as well as ghosts and Kris Kringle. When Katie protests, and asks why she should teach her child “foolish lies,” Mary answers:

“The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things that are not of this world. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch. When as a woman life and people disappoint her, she will have had practice in disappointment and it will not come so hard. In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good too. It makes a person rich in character.”

N is obsessed with belief, and is always asking me do I believe in god, do I believe in Santa, do I believe in fairies, and so on. I tell her I believe in the connections between people; the power of kindness; the necessity of stories that help us see from different perspectives. It doesn’t wash. Yes or no, Mom, do you believe in God/fairies/Santa? I can’t say yes. But “no” doesn’t seem honest either. I do believe.  But what I believe in is difficult to put into words – almost as if it is not meant to be put into words. And yet I know it needs to be taught and shared; it feels like my duty to teach and share it, just as it is my duty to clothe and feed her. And read with her.

Grandpa Stan ready to ski in 1941, 100-ish years after Dickens penned his Christmas tale, ten years before Alastair Sim played Scrooge, and two years before Betty Smith wrote about the Tree of Heaven.

Two years ago I posted about how much we love the 1951 A Christmas Carol film starring Alastair Sim. This year N started asking for the movie in early November, so we’ve watched it many times already, despite the fact that in my husband’s family, it’s a Christmas Eve tradition. He tells of his old Grandpa Stan, farmhand, pre-hippy-hippy, and WW1 vet, roaring with laughter through these viewings, and shedding a tear or two as well.

The film is black and white, full of Victorian English, but this movie completely captivates the great granddaughter Stan  never knew. She can even recite passages aloud, and giggles when Scrooge suggests Marley’s ghost may be nothing more than “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.” I have to wonder — did Stan love that part too?

Marley's Ghost, illustrated by John Leech, 1843

Last year we read aloud snippets of the book as well, just to give her a taste of Charles Dickens, but this year she asked if we could read the whole thing. “Let’s make it a goal,” she said, “to finish it before Christmas Eve.” And last night we achieved our goal. I thought it would be hard-going, but it wasn’t at all. Whereas in the Harry Potter series we saved the movie until we had read the book, this time the reverse worked well for us. N knew the story well enough that she was able to follow the old-fashioned language easily. And I knew she was following, because she often pointed out parts that hadn’t been included in the movie, such as when — much to her delight! — Scrooge tries to smother the brightly glowing first spirit in a cone-shaped extinguisher cap. He seizes the thing, presses it down upon the little spirit with all his force, but the light still streams from it in an unbroken flood, and finally Scrooge gives up, flings himself into bed, and falls into a deep sleep.

N adores Scrooge’s meanness, his bitter, pigheadedness; his horror at seeing himself for what he’s truly become; and finally his utter joy in making amends — in giving . A Grade 2 schoolmate of N’s recently wrote about what happens when he gives: “I feel joyful, in a strange way.” So too, Ebenezer Scrooge. Upon discovering his chance to better himself, he laughs and cries in the same breath. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A Merry Christmas to everybody! A happy new year to all the world! … Whoop!”

Was this joy and generosity what resonated so well with N? I wondered about that this morning, as I accompanied her class to sing carols at a mission. The kids brought hats and mitts to leave behind for any who needed them, and they sang their hearts out to the staff and the visitors alike. I glanced around and saw people smiling. Some sang along, and it helped the kids sing louder. I made a note to tell N a little more about Dickens sometime soon.

Charles Dickens, painted in 1842 by Francis Alexander, not long before A Christmas Carol was published

In 1843, when A Christmas Carol was published, he was in his early thirties, and already carving out  a body of work that focused on the poor and the oppressed. When Dickens was a boy, his bankrupt father was sent to Marshalsea debtors’ prison, just around the corner from where my own family lived in “the Borough.” The rest of the family (minus Charles, who went to work in a factory) was held in prison too, and it is often written that these events scarred him deeply, and led him to his own form of social commentary, in which the lowest classes took the starring roles.

I know these are the things that appeal to my husband about Dickens — along with the humour, and the vivid descriptions. A while back when he was sick for a couple of days, he laid in our room reading Oliver Twist, and I could hear him chuckling away to himself. He often said, during our Harry Potter readings, “I bet JK Rowling likes Dickens.” But I was curious to know what N’s reasons were — at least, how she would articulate them. So when we closed the book last night after reaching our goal, I said to her, “Why do you like this story so much?” and waited for her brilliant answer.

She gave me a slightly incredulous look, glanced at her like-minded dad, and turned back to me with a shrug.

“Because it’s good.”

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Somehow or other it comes just the same

We’ve already cracked open one of our favourite Christmas stories here at home: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. My daughter’s birthday is in early December, and we’ve taken to finishing the party with a raucous reading of that book — I’m the narrator, and my husband transforms into the Grinch himself, reciting all the Grinch lines and doing the faces too. It’s amazing how he actually does begin to look green. His heart is small and shriveled at the beginning of the story, and he hunches himself around it as he slinks through the living room giving the children evil stares — and then his hand cups his ear by the end of the story, and his ballooning heart thumps under his sweater. This is that key moment I mentioned in my last post, when the Grinch changes course not because he can get something out of it — in fact he loses all the “things” he’s acquired — but simply because he is moved by goodness. He sees it actually isn’t possible to steal Christmas. “Somehow or other, it came just the same.”

Last year, steeped as we were in Christmas stories and movies and shows, my husband and I noticed how prevalent was the theme of “what’s in it for me,” and got into quite a discussion as we discovered just how true it was that the Grinch was a cut above other villains.

Scrooge's third visitor, by John Leech, 1843

There’s the classic one — Dickens’ Scrooge, who is terrorized into kindness and compassion by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and most ominously the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Dickens himself would probably have loved Alastair Sim in this role in the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol. He gets all of the expressions just right, and oozes a bah,  humbug quality. It’s likely that Theodor Seuss Geisel had Scrooge in mind when he developed his Grinch, but the difference between the two curmudgeons lies in what motivates them to change.

Scrooge extraordinaire. It's best not to mention Jim Carrey...

And think of Professor Hinkle in Frosty the Snowman. Frosty was originally a simple little song first recorded by Gene Autry in 1950, but by the 60s it had morphed into the film we still see on television at this time of year. The enlarged story included Hinkle, a magician who fails to realize the magical properties of his hat before tossing it aside, and is now determined to retrieve it as he chases Frosty and friends on foot and by train to the North Pole. Of course, the gang eventually ends up encountering Santa himself, who tells Hinkle that if he repents, he’ll get a little something in his stocking Christmas Day.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer started out as a story in 1939. Its author, Robert L. May, used The Ugly Duckling tale as inspiration, and you can certainly still see links between the two, even though the 1960s television version took Rudolph in some new directions. The show is still big with kids at Christmas, and we love it too, for a number of reasons — the charming stop-motion animation, the Island of Misfit Toys, gravelly-voiced Yukon Cornelius, and the unexpected detail of an elf who’d rather be a dentist. And yet, once my husband and I got going on our what’s-in-it-for-me-investigation, we realized the theory held true here as well. After all of Rudolph’s adventures, when he finally returns home, he is only really accepted by Santa and the rest because they realize his glowing nose will guide them through the storm. He is useful to them, and so welcome.

The doctor draws the Grinch's puzzler

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