Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story
“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
- Publication Date: November 1, 2009
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Harper
- ISBN-10: 006194100X
- ISBN-13: 9780061941009