Joseph Bottum is the kind of storyteller who captures your attention with a straightforward phrase, a wordsmith who tickles the imagination with his own brand of plainspeak, elucidating what you knew all the time but couldn’t quite put your finger on. He writes as Everyman describing the human condition, and as a prophet with an eye toward eternity.
That the Black Hills of South Dakota should have won him back, home from a successful career in Washington DC and New York, is a major coup for the Mount Rushmore State. And it’s a great benefit to American readers, who can eavesdrop on Jody’s childhood reminiscences in his 2012 memoir, The Christmas Plains.
Bottum’s writing stretches across conventional lines. The talented Catholic essayist, poet, novelist, commentator and scholar has produced an impressive list of titles including his 2014 book An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. In An Anxious Age, he makes the claim that members of the nation’s elite class are the spiritual heirs of Mainline Protestantism, and that this class has triumphed over Catholics and Evangelicals in the culture wars. I reviewed An Anxious Age last year; but I have a new appreciation for Jody’s work after indulging in the homespun memories in The Christmas Plains.
Here, a peek at the Preface, which helps to explain why Jody had me at “Hello”:
Already I’m pulled in, remembering my own red saucer and Lola Valley, the Redford Township ravine where my Dad and my Uncle Eddie took us sledding. Securely packed by our mother in rubber boots and woolen mittens, buffeted by the icy wind, we accumulated memories and bruises, solemnly respectful of the river at the bottom of the hill.
“This book started out as a small collection of essays about the meaning of Christmas. You know the sort of thing: a kind of “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,” that marvelous piece of 1897 newspaper sentimentality, jazzed up for modern audiences.
Unfortunately, I let down my guard, early on, and my family and friends began crowding in. Old, half-remembered Christmas decorations started shouting for a place, and even those scratched red saucer sleds my sister and I had when we were young clamored for a mention. Holiday dinners, travelogues, the lyrics of carols, all the Christmas books I’ve ever read–everybody wanted in on the party….”
Bottum’s reminiscences carry the reader to an earlier era. He remembers a live tree decorated with tinsel:
“Tinsel. No one needs tinsel. Even the word is a tinselly kind of word. It ought to have been a mild profanity, suitable for bridge clubs and sorority girls: “Oh tinsel, I forgot my keys again, Suzie.” Instead it names one of the most destructive substances known to humankind.”
And please, if it’s not too much, permit me to indulge my sense of the beautiful one more time, describing Jody Bottum describing Christmas in snowy South Dakota:
“The prairie in December is brutal and indifferent, but that sated Christmas I was sixteen–with presents back home spilling off the sofa, the annual race car track looped in a figure eight beneath the tree, too many new books and boxes of candy, the mothball odor of the Christmas linen and the cloying scent of the evergreen branches–I perceived, in some confused adolescent’s way, the spirit’s harrowing side. I came to cast fire upon the earth, as Christ declares in the Gospel of Luke, and would that it were already kindled! There was a burned-over purity to that frozen South Dakota landscape, an icy clarity to its ash-white slate.”
He continues, every line of this book sucking memories from the reader’s dim past. “To stand along the prairie’s rim,” he writes, “was to understand the clean, impatient thought of hermits and the Desert Fathers: where human beings are, the divine is not. God lives apart from people.”
For the discerning reader who appreciates fine literature and enjoys the feeling of having his carefully filed memories wrenched from their cerebral shelves, The Christmas Plains is an inspiring holiday book. Having it in your hands a day or two before Christmas would be even better!