Christmas Stories: Miss Santa Claus of the Pullman CarDecember 21, 2012
You know how some authors have specific things that they really like? Stuff you come across and think, “Well, if I didn’t know this was a book by ____, I would know now?” And you know how some of those things are weirdly specific?
Annie Fellows Johnston has a thing about fairytales and practical life-lessons and jewelry, in combination. There’s always a fairytale, it always has a specific application, and the child hearing it always gets a trinket to remember it by. And hey, that’s cool. All of those things appeal to me, separately and together. But clearly not as much as they appeal to Johnston. And it’s not that weird the first time around, but each time it seems weirder. And I’ve read all of the Little Colonel books, so at this point it seems pretty weird.
That’s a shame, though, because the morally significant jewelry is much more organic in Miss Santa Claus of the Pullman Car than in any of the Little Colonel books. Also, some of the morally significant jewelry isn’t jewelry at all.
Miss Santa Claus of the Pullman Car is about Lottie and William, two motherless children whose father pays for them to board with a middle aged couple in his hometown. Lottie, the bossy older sister, is in her first year of school, and comes home each day with more information about Santa Claus. She instills in William her fear that if they don’t do everything exactly right, Santa won’t bring them presents at all. Still, they both send him letters; Lottie’s asks for a gold ring and William’s “picture letter” requests a ride in the Pullman car he watches out the window on a regular basis.
All their Christmas plans are upset when their father gets married and writes requesting that they travel to him on Christmas Eve. On the train, though, they get their Christmas wishes, granted by “Miss Santa Claus,” who buys them a meal in the dining car of William’s dreams and tells them a story about how to turn the evil, snaggletoothed stepmother they’ve imagined into a real mother, through acts of obedience and self-sacrifice. Then, when they’ve dozed off in their seats, she concocts Christmas stockings out of things she has on hand — the stockings themselves are the cuffs of her kimono, and she fills them with scrounged oranges, candy and nuts, plus a special gift for each one. Lottie gets the gold ring she asked for, and William receives a conductor’s hole punch.
The stepmother turns out, of course, to be a lovely person, and Lottie, with her ring to remind her, is an almost equally lovely daughter to her. William, on the other hand, gets off on the wrong foot, with the help of Benjy, the neighborhood devil-child. Here, things get off the Christmas track, and they never quite go back. The rest of the story is perfectly satisfactory, but it’s all structured in such a way that it feels like three linked stories rather than one. That, and it’s not sufficiently committed to the Unity of Christmastimes. Still, I can’t deny that it’s a proper Christmas story, and I don’t think I’d want to, either.