A 79-year-old holiday tale featuring ghosts, snow and unresolved Father issues.
In 1935, Vincent Starrett was nearing the end of his career as a fiction writer.
He had explored several genres (general fiction, mystery novels and short stories, poetry, the eerie, parody, fantasy and nonfiction), and was starting to feel worn out. Mysteries had been his bread and butter. But inventing new mystery plots was becoming more difficult, and the kinds of intellectual detective tales he enjoyed writing had been overwhelmed by the hardboiled tough guys. Writing about books, book collecting, authors and related fields were now more to his liking.
Still, Starrett had a few fictional pieces in him, and one in particular became his Christmas holiday gift for 1935. It’s a touchingly sentimental piece, and it might have more than a bit to say about the relationship between Starrett and his father, who had passed away in 1918.
Here’s a summary of “Snow for Christmas”:
David Thursk has lost his faith in Christmas, and just about everything else, since the death of his beloved father a year before. The two men loved each other, but never spoke about their feelings, leaving David feeling incomplete. “Times without number he reproached himself for the pride that had sealed within his lips the expressions of affection that now lay so heavily on his heart.” Just as his son has written a letter to Santa, Thursk’s wife suggests he write a letter to his father. Overwhelmed by his regret, Thursk does just that late one night, then drops the letter in the fireplace as he recognizes the futility of his action.
On Christmas Eve, Thursk can’t sleep and is nodding by the fire as a storm lets loose outside. “The snow, which had fallen all day long, vanished on the wings of an icy blast out of the north. The wind roared in the streets and whined dismally in the chimneys. It plucked great armfuls of snow from the drifts and flung them across the night in swirling clouds of columns.”
The doorbell announces the arrival of a telegraph messenger. The messenger is bundled up against the storm and seems older than the usual man. Thursk invites him in for a hot cup of tea. “It’s good of you to ask me. I’d like to have tea with you sometime – yes, and smoke a pipe, too. Most of all, I’d like to talk with you. That would be great happiness for me.”
Thursk suddenly becomes frightened as he thinks he recognizes the messenger. “You took my father! I know you now. You are. . . .” But the messenger needs to leave and promises that someday, he will return “and perhaps you will care to go with me for a distance, when I leave.”
Thursk realizes the messenger is his father’s spirit and makes to run out into the storm after him, but hears his wife’s voice calling him back. Still, he races out into the storm, crying out for his father. The storm overcomes him and his life is feared lost.
As he recovers, he reflects on the message his father had tried to leave. “I have understood your message. Is just to love – and to tell others that you love.”
A sentimental and romantic idea, the story feels like Starrett’s opportunity to come to peace with his father’s death, many years after the fact. Like many Christmas stories, it has a ghost and a hint of death, but ends in a ode to the revitalizing power of love.
But there might be something else going on here too: Starrett's mother died in 1933 as described in "Dear Mother" and updated in a recent post. Could Starrett have been working through his mother's suicide too? There might be a clue in his memoirs, Born in a Bookshop. Starrett's mother died in 1933, but in his memoirs, he puts the date at 1935. That's the same year he published "Snow for Christmas."
Still . . . .
The 1935 booklet that first held this story is relatively rare, with only 125 copies produced as Christmas gifts. Charles Honce in his invaluable A Vincent Starrett Library, notes there was a red slip cover to the finished piece. My copy, No. 37, lacks that cover.
As you can see, the book was published in Glencoe, now a wealthy suburb of Chicago’s north shore. The design and printing was done by Henry Dierkes, who, like Starrett, was a Sherlockian and a member of the Hounds of the Baskerville (sic). Dierkes was also a poet and wrote a tribute to Starrett, that is reprinted here from the book, Shaking Hands with Immortality: Encomiums for Vincent Starrett, 1886-1974, published in 1975. So far as I can tell, the poem first appeared in print in Peter Ruber’s book, The Last Bookman in 1968, although an earlier publication date would not be surprising.
The publisher of the book also published a book of poetry by Dierkes, also in 1935. Those are the only two publications I can find under her name, which, in a delightful bit of happenstance, is Eileen Baskerville.
"Snow for Christmas" pops up occasionally in holiday anthologies. The most recent that I've found is A Treasury of Christmas Joy, published by Honor Books in October 2008. Tucked right there next to Dickens, William Dean Howells, and the Holy Bible is Starrett's little story.
The book is still in print and can be easily found online.
You can also find "Snows for Christmas" in an older work: The Fireside Book of Christmas Stories, published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1945.
And that is how we will close out 2014. For several years, I’ve enjoyed sending a Starrett-related holiday card to my Sherlockian friends. For a variety of reasons, I suspended the practice this year and produced this essay instead. I hope it elicits the same pleasure as the card.
“Compliments of the Season” to all of you.
The More You Know
- Dierkes 1935 book of poetry, also published by Eileen Baskerville, was titled The Man from Vermont and other Poems. The booklet was dedicated to Robert Frost, who became a friend of Dierkes.
- Has anyone read the original Mary Poppins book by P.L. Travers, published in 1934, one year before this story? In the Disney film version, the children write an ad for their ideal nanny, but the ad is torn to bits and thrown into the fire by their father. Mary Poppins later arrives with the restored note. That sequence is like the one Starrett uses in this story. I wonder if it is in the book? N.B.: Steve Rothman pulled out his copy of Mary Poppins and could not find this scene. Thanks Steve!
- Does anyone else think Starrett’s description of the storm (“The wind roared in the streets and whined dismally in the chimneys.”) sounds like Watson’s description in “The Five Orange Pips”? (“As evening drew in, the storm grew higher and louder, and the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney.”)