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THE CHRISTMAS LETTERS by Lee Smith

THE CHRISTMAS LETTERS

By Lee Smith

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1996
ISBN: 1-56512-156-2
Publisher: Algonquin

 With her typical easy wit and down-home charm, Smith (Saving Grace, 1995, etc.) fashions an epistolary novella from that most infamous of genres, the annual family letter that often arrives in Christmas cards. The three generations of Christmas letters in Smith's genial narrative span 50 years, and evolve as dramatically as their means of reproduction, from crude carbon copies to mimeograph to Xeroxes- -from the personal to the word-processed. Each letter records the significant events of the year before, beginning in 1944, when Birdie Pickett writes home to West Virginia about her marriage, her first child, and the loneliness she feels in North Carolina, where she lives with her in-laws while her new husband serves in the South Pacific. Later letters chronicle his return home, his effort to run the family farm, the destruction of the farm in a flood, and the opening of a dime store in town. Birdie's terse epistles always end with a recipe, such as ``Mrs. Goodwillie's Bible Cake,'' with its ingredients taken from Scripture. In 1967, Birdie's daughter Mary resumes the family narrative and documents her own transition from trailer-park bride to suburban matron, with four kids, a fancy house, and membership in the local country club. All of this falls apart, and in 1993, Mary writes the first ``real'' Christmas letter, one that doesn't hide the truth; her narrative includes her feelings about (among other things) her recent messy divorce, her brother's tragic return from Vietnam, her husband's history of infidelity, and her oldest son's homosexuality. A single letter from Mary's daughter Melanie (in the present) includes her own efforts to research family history, which is what the past has now become--fodder for her planned novel. A clever idea that finds its own suitable length: Smith's short novel leaves so much unsaid, as befits the semi-public epistolary genre, but manages to reflect change in humble matters, even in something so simple as a recipe. A delight. (Author tour)