If you have been following along at home, you will remember that I was sick the last couple of weeks and so limited my reading to short and light books that wouldn’t over-load my aching head. This being the week of Christmas, I thought I would share with you my thoughts on some books with a Christmas theme. First up is John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas.
This little novella, like Bleachers, is not your typical Grisham thriller but a holiday morality tale. The story tells the tale of Luther and Nora Krank, a vaguely middle class family wrestling with the holiday hustle and bustle. When their daughter Blair graduates from college and decides to head to South America with the Peace Corps Luther has a radical idea: why not skip Christmas. He runs some numbers late one night – Luther is an accountant – and concludes that with the gifts, decorations, food, charities, and whatnot they spent $6100 last year on Christmas – $6100! So his plan is to skip all that and take a cruise instead. Instead of the stress and cost of Christmas they get the sun and relaxation of the Bahamas. Nora isn’t sure this is such a good idea, what will people think, how can they just skip Christmas? But Luther’s enthusiasm wins her over. The story then follows them as they attempt to stick to their promise to abstain from the holiday and focus on their upcoming cruise (to prepare they go on a diet and even sign up for tanning sessions!).
The Kranks (I am not sure exactly what Grisham is trying to say with that name) encounter all sorts of resistance as they stick to their guns. Friends and acquaintances are incredulous and confused (although some are obviously jealous); how do you “skip” Christmas? But they stick to it, no Christmas cards, no tree, no office party, no decorations for the house, no Christmas Eve party at their house, the list goes on. The closer to Christmas, the more the pressure builds. The neighborhood competes in a holiday decoration contest and the Kranks will be the only ones not participating (the neighboorhood loses as a result). They have to say no to a series of charities that knock on the door: the Boy Scouts selling trees, the paramedics raising money for children, the Policemen’s benevolent association, etc. Nora increasingly feels the pressure but Arthur is rather enjoying the whole thing.
For those of you who don’t want to know about the central plot twist of this little story, stop reading. Gone? Ok, I know the suspense was killing the rest of you. Just as the Kranks are packing for their cruise, having survived all the pressure and stress, their daughter calls. Surprise! She is at the airport in Miami and is coming home for Christmas with her new fiancÃ©e! This sends the Kranks into a total tailspin as mom simply can’t spoil her daughterâ€™s surprise; instead she insists that they immediately go into full Christmas mode. The daughter is not to know anything was amiss or different from any other year. Still in a state of shock as his careful plan falls apart, Luther must scramble to make up for weeks of inaction. As is par for the course in these type of stories, hilarity ensues. Luther can’t find a tree this late (it is the day before Christmas); all of the decorations are in boxes in the attic; their friends have already made commitments and won’t be able to attend the Kranks annual Christmas Eve party that has been hastily resurrected. Nora can’t find any decent food to prepare either and the crowds are horrendous. Their daughter will be at the airport any minute!
In the end, despite their efforts, it looks as if Christmas will be a disaster. Being a cheesy holiday story, however, Grisham doesn’t end the story there. Instead, the very same neighbors who were putting so much pressure on the Kranks about skipping Christmas come to the rescue once they learn of Blairâ€™s impending return. Everyone swings into action and does their part to make this Christmas perfect. When she arrives from the airport, everything is just right: the house is full of people, the tree is lit, Frosty is glowing on the roof, and there is plenty of good food to go around. As Blairâ€™s fiancÃ©e sings carols in Spanish the neighborhood basks in the glow of Christmas cheer. Luther adds the final piece to the happy ending, giving the cruise tickets away to his formerly quarrelsome neighbors (the wife has cancer and the husband has been demoted). Everything is right with the world and Luther laughs at the idea of skipping Christmas.
It is quite clear that Grisham was trying to create another holiday classic that reminds us what the season is truly about. I will admit that on occasion I like a sappy story. Heartwarming stories about love and family often make us appreciate how blessed we are. Skipping Christmas, however, really doesnâ€™t capture this feeling. The tone of the story seems off. For most of the story the focus is on the idea of skipping Christmas. At times it feels like a sort of anti-commercialism story (although I am not sure if the Kranks arenâ€™t the greedy ones with their cruise). “Why must Christmas come down to stress and pressure?,” Grisham seems to be asking. The humor comes from the back and forth between Luther and Nora as the pressure builds (and there are funny moments, Nora struggling with wearing an bikini in th tanning bed, for example, and then running into her pastor in the mall). But the humor is undercut because you are not sure exactly why Luther and Nora feel so much pressure. In order for the farce/comedy bits to work one must feel they have a kernel of truth. But Grisham produces a caricature of snobby suburban commercialism that I canâ€™t relate to. If no one enjoys the season then why particpate? Luther and Nora seem testy and a little cranky in ways that make it hard to sympathize with them (again rather than interesting characters Grisham produces the stereotypical nagging wife and grumbling husband). But if you did begin to sympathize with them, then Grisham turns the tables on you. The same neighbors who seem noisy and snotty when the Kranks are skipping Christmas become the heroes in the end. This muddies the water and leaves the message unclear. Are they snotty suburban materialists or caring and unselfish community leaders? I am still not clear what exactly Grisham was trying to say.
If Bleachers at least struggled with some bigger issues and spoke to what it means to be human, Skipping Christmas is empty of anything except a clever story. It reads like something out of a Readers Digest Christmas issue. If you are looking for Christmas stories to read, stick with Dickens.