Review

Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story

by Wally Lamb

“The year I was a fifth-grade student at St. Aloysius
Gonzaga Parochial School, our teacher, Sister Dymphna, had a
nervous breakdown in front of our class. To this day, I can hear
Sister’s screams and see her flailing attempts to shoo away
the circling Prince of Darkness…what follows is both my
confession and my act of contrition. Forgive me, reader, for I have
sinned. It was I who, on that long-ago day, triggered
Sister’s meltdown. For this and all the sins of my last life,
I am heartily sorry.”

This is hardly your archetypal start to a traditional Christmas
novel. What follows this unorthodox preface to Wally Lamb’s
genial holiday novel is one of the funnier scenes involving BB gun
pellets since Ralphie nearly shot his eye out in A Christmas
Story.

The year is 1964. The place is the fictional town of Three
Rivers, Connecticut. And our hero, fifth-grader Felix Funicello
(yes, he’s related to that Funicello --- none other
than Annette, who is his third cousin on his dad’s side), is
having an eventful year. His family is giving his famous cousin a
run for her money in the TV exposure-department, and his mother,
Marie, has been chosen to represent Connecticut at the Pillsbury
Bake-Off, which will take place in California and be broadcast
nationally. But an unfortunate incident occurs, something that
could have happened to anybody (I’ll let you discover it for
yourself). And it’s just his poor mother’s luck that
the thing was televised. In the hopes of putting a better foot
forward for his family, Felix prepares for his own TV appearance on
the local “Ranger Andy” program, shot live in Hartford.
Too bad he didn’t quite understand the subtext of a joke that
he tells on-air (again, I’m leaving its discovery up to you,
reader).

As the novel goes into the winter of ’64, Felix has his
hands full at St. Aloysius Gonzaga School, whether he’s doing
homework or competing with his arch-nemesis, Rosalie Twerski.
Rosalie’s brown-nosing knows no bounds, and she battles it
out with Felix for the top spot in the class. After Sister
Dymphna’s breakdown (aided in part by Felix and his friend
Lonny), the event acts as a catalyst for Madame Frechette’s
arrival from Quebec. With her phrases francais and her
younger, hipper mentality, she suggests to the fifth-grade class
that instead of the same old Nativity play, they would put on a
“tableaux vivant” (a living picture) for the school and
their families. This excites Felix and his class as they handicap
which girl will win the coveted role of Mary. Will it be favorite
Rosalie or the dark horse, Zhenya Kabakova, the new girl from
Russia who has a mouth like a longshoreman?

When he’s not studying or at school, Felix can be found at
his parents’ luncheonette, where he helps out his parents and
two older sisters with the family business. But he can hardly focus
on the work as he’s at that difficult age when the birds and
the bees can send a young boy’s mind reeling. Now more than
ever, he needs guidance, but all he has ever heard in the way of
advice from his dad on the subject is to avoid water fountain
spouts as they are a breeding ground for germs and diseases. When
it comes to the confusing topic of sex, Felix decides, “If I
was ever going to figure it all out, I’d just have to listen
harder on the school bus --- be Sherlock Holmes, kind
of.”

Lamb’s holiday offering is a sweet, appealing,
coming-of-age-in-a-time-of-innocence story that makes for a
pleasant walk down memory lane. Like Jean Shepherd and Garrison
Keillor, Lamb truly captures a time and a place vividly and relates
it in perfect 10-year-old boy candor.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 24, 2011

Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story
by Wally Lamb

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0061941018
  • ISBN-13: 9780061941016