"A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote: Book Review

"A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote
Modern Library (Random House), 107 pp., $15.95 (hardcover)
Reviewed by David Marshall James

Truman Capote's triumvirate of holiday stories-- including "A Christmas Memory," "One Christmas," and "The Thanksgiving Visitor"-- join as one in portraying the author's childhood relationship with his much-older, childlike cousin, Sook Faulk, during the early years of the Great Depression in Monroeville, Alabama.

The title piece is simply one of the best American short stories ever written, as Sook and Buddy (the eight-year-old Capote) prepare for Christmas 1933. "It's fruitcake weather!" Sook proclaims, which entails the gathering (then cracking and shelling) of windfall pecans in an old baby buggy, with moral support from their beloved rat terrier, Queenie. Then, the coins they have been hording since the past summer are counted out, in order to purchase the canned and candied fruit and spices necessary.

The finished fruitcakes will be mailed and hand-delivered to people who have struck the duo's fancy, including President and Mrs. Roosevelt.

Two journeys are involved: one, to the disreputable hangout of Mr. Haha Jones for some Prohibition-era whiskey (a key ingredient in any good fruitcake). The second entails a foray deep into the piney woods, in search of the perfect Christmas tree.

Buddy realizes that the excitement of the holiday lies in the preparations-- in the anticipation thereof-- and in having a friend as special as his cousin.

That theme is reinforced in "One Christmas," in which a thoroughly miserable Buddy is put on a bus to New Orleans to spend Christmas away from Sook, with his father, who has been divorced from his mother, now living in New York. Presents abound under the tree in his father's Vieux Carre townhouse, site of a glittering Christmas Eve party attended by wealthy, unattached older women and cigar-smoking men on the prowl for them.

However, the celebration-- as enticing on the surface as a department-store window display on Canal Street-- proves a fiasco of shattered innocence and loneliness.

"The Thanksgiving Visitor," a literary gem, recalls Buddy's difficult encounter with a schoolyard bully, Odd Henderson, whom Sook insists be invited to the huge feast held at the family home, overseen by maiden cousins and a bachelor uncle. The story vividly evokes the arrival of the guests and their anticipated culinary specialties, including ambrosia, whipped sweet potatoes with raisins, and banana pudding (this last supplied by a centenarian aunt, and Buddy's favorite).

Capote's literary touches are deceptively simple yet enormously powerful, as Buddy's intended sweet revenge on his nemesis forces a bitter lesson handed down by the kindly Sook. Among the many feathers flying in the literary cap of the chameleonlike Capote is that of Southern writer, and these stories belong in the highest echelon of the region's short fiction.

"A Christmas Memory" was first published more than fifty years ago; "The Thanksgiving Visitor," more than forty. These literary treasures are perfect accompaniments to the holidays, and this affordable hardcover edition would make the perfect gift for anyone on your list, from Buddy's age to that of the centenarian aunt of banana-pudding renown.

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