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The House of Wooden Santas

by Kevin Major,Imelda George, carver

Where is Kevin Major going? Twenty years ago, the young Newfoundland author burst onto the literary scene with a proud, angry young-adult novel called Hold Fast that won a Canada Council Award for Children’s Literature and garnered Major an instant international reputation. Now, as he approaches 50, Canada’s most famous writer of serious YA novels seems to be changing course.

Two years ago Major turned his hand to a grim, adult historical novel, No Man’s Land, an uncompromising story based on the doomed Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War. The central character, Hayward, is the same age as the characters in Major’s earlier YA novels, but No Man’s Land is no more a teen book than was Stendahl’s The Red and the Black. It’s tough, poetic, and serious reading that ends with the death of young Hayward from a flurry of machine gun bullets.

Earlier this season, Doubleday published Major’s second adult book – Gaffer. Subtitled A Novel of Newfoundland, the book, an adult fantasy told by “a daft and raging fish-boy,” received mixed reviews. Now, Major has shifted again and offers readers an illustrated children’s book, The House of Wooden Santas, with photographs taken by Ned Pratt of marvellous wooden Santa Claus figures carved by Nova Scotia artist Imelda George. The book itself is glorious, beautifully made, and structured in the form of a classic children’s tale, but what does its creation mean for Kevin Major?

It is possible that certain strange twists come with the writer’s territory in mid-life and mid-career. When Margaret Laurence was about 50, she published three books for children. Margaret Atwood, in her mid-50s, followed up The Robber Bride with Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut. And now Kevin Major, Canada’s pre-eminent author for young adults, has turned his hand to the illustrated children’s book.

In The House of Wooden Santas, Major understands how text has to work with illustration, how the real life of children has to be captured in their speech and actions, how language has to be made simple without sounding false. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see the Kevin Major of Hold Fast behind the gentler and more gracious story in The House of Wooden Santas.

The central character, Jesse, is only nine, but his serious attitudes and problems in school are not that far removed from the chip-on-the-shoulder characters in Major’s teen novels. Jesse’s biggest real problem in this Christmas tale is that he’s not sure whether to believe in the holiday miracles that Santa Claus represents. On the surface, Jesse is a tough little character who thinks his mother’s brain is in outer space and who responds to her earnest suggestions with phrases like, “Extremely and absolutely boor-r-r-ring.” Jesse’s heart-of-gold doesn’t really show until a third of the way into this very long Christmas story. Like so many of Major’s teenage characters, the reader eventually grows to like Jesse but finds him just a little too obnoxious early on.

Jesse doesn’t inhabit the cheerful universe we sometimes find in illustrated books for kids. Mom has lost her job and can’t find another; the kids at school aren’t particularly friendly; Dad is off in Vancouver and rarely makes contact; money is a problem; the family has had to pack up and move to a cheaper place. Jesse’s mom carves wooden Santas to make a living, but success is slow in coming. Soon the new landlord wants them gone, so Jesse and his new friend, Jonathan, begin Operation Wentzell to win over the Scrooge-like Mrs.Wentzell. Major’s devotion to the tough material of real life is still evident, but it’s softer here, filtered through the child’s eyes and eased by his hope of a Christmas miracle.

There is, at the end, a real-life Christmas miracle. Mrs. Wentzell finds the true meaning of Christmas; Jesse and his mom can stay in their house; Jesse’s mom and his teacher have fallen in love; and Jesse has learned that there really is a Santa Claus. “If you didn’t believe in something because you couldn’t see it, then your life would be very boring,” Jesse concludes.

The only serious flaw in this beautifully illustrated Christmas tale is its length. It’s just shy of 100 pages, most of them filled with text. Each chapter counts down the 24 days to Christmas, and parents will probably plan to read a chapter each day to their children. But too many of the chapters are too much alike, and the story seems to drag midway. I wish Major had compacted this to a 12-day tale – we’d lose some wonderful illustrations, but the story would be that much tighter.

Still, there is a magic in this book, carried to some extent by the photographs of the santas, and it is the magic that rescues the tale from its grim surroundings and Jesse’s capital-A attitude. Major has this knack, as a writer, to find that golden centre in his characters and their story, which is simply hidden behind the problems of real life.

Let’s hope that Major hasn’t decided to abandon that ore of YA angst that he has mined for so long. With his recent books for two different markets, he has somehow managed to expand his field.

Fittingly, there’s an exchange between Jesse and his mother in The House of Wooden Santas, where the characters consider this very topic. Jesse’s mother previously carved angels, but in the book has turned to Santa Clauses.
“I’m branching out,” she tells Jesse.
“Oh,” responds the nine-year-old.
“I’m expanding,” she says.
“Good,” replies her son.
Kevin Major’s expansion, too, is a good thing. As the mother says at another point in the book, “Nobody’s too old for a little magic in their lives! Look at me.” Kevin Major has used The House of Wooden Santas to find a little magic of his own and bring it to us. Mostly, that magic works.