“Every Who / Down in Who-ville / Liked Christmas a lot… / But the Grinch, / Who lived just north of Who-ville, / Did NOT!”
Christmas books started arriving last spring—imagine opening a box in May and finding it full of red, green, gold and sparkles. The mad rush to wring a few more bucks out of every passing Christmas is enough to set my Grinch fingers drumming. This season, we’ll see two Nutcracker picture books, a couple of Night Before Christmases, a few Nativity tales and Tyrannoclaus, which marries two can’t-beat-it concepts for kids—dinosaurs and acquisition (imagine that elevator pitch)—among many, many others, all rounded up in our September 15 issue.
There are a few nods to “multiculturalism,” with a scant handful of Hanukkah books, one lonely Kwanzaa title and a very funny anti-consumerist Solstice book, but it’s clear that Christmas is the moneymaker holiday of the year, and the sheer volume of Christmas books has me plotting Grand Theft Who-hash to a Boris Karloff soundtrack: “You’re a mean one…”
But then I open a box containing Truce, by Jim Murphy (Scholastic, Oct. 1, 2009, $19.99, ISBN: 978-0-545-13049-3), and I think that perhaps I might sing another tune. Murphy takes his epigraph from Winston Churchill, who wondered in a November 1914 letter to his wife, “What would happen…if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike and said some other method must be found of settling the dispute?” The “dispute,” of course, was the Great War, the War to End All Wars until it became the First World War. And the truce of the book’s title is that magical, spontaneous Christmas truce of 1914, when peace broke out all along the Western Front.
Opening with a cogent recap of the state of Europe prior to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that focuses on those moments when war might have been averted (if Kaiser Wilhelm had read his mail on time, for instance), the author gracefully moves to the horrific conditions of battle that established the static madness of trench warfare—a madness that, oddly enough, led to enough fraternization across No Man’s Land that both British and German High Commands feared what eventually happened.
Drawing on a wealth of primary sources, from letters home, diaries and recollections of combatants to archival photographs and prints, the author allows the principles to speak: “Altogether we had a great day with our enemies,” wrote one British private, “and parted with much handshaking and mutual goodwill.”
That goodwill didn’t last—though in one spot in the Belgian woods the truce lasted almost till Easter—and Murphy takes readers through to the exhausting endgame that spawned the next war, but also he leaves kids with the provocative thought that war need not be inevitable, that the truce “offered reassurance that a kinder, humane spirit could prevail…” And if that doesn’t make even the Grinch-iest heart grow at least three sizes, then nothing will. Who-pudding, anyone?