Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Dec. 5, 6 or 7, 2016
However, as if to provide an antidote for toxic selfishness and discord, Illinois author Timothy Collins’ new book offers a heartwarming, homespun reminder of the good will and the peace on Earth that can connect seasonal secular kindness with the righteousness of the holiday’s roots.
“Memories of Santa Claus: Louis Finnegan” is a cheery blend of the movie moods of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story” and “The Santa Clause” that could inoculate the sourest cynic or curmudgeonly cable-TV host against divisiveness (or even the despair or disgust left after the long political campaign).
Collins, retired from the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, now writes for dailyyonder.com, but this 228-page gem shows that he has a knack for good, old-fashioned storytelling, too.
Here, the 20 sequential short stories together form a novel of sorts, starting when young Louis Finnegan in 1927 “saved Christmas” by rousing Santa from a nap after an eggnog-and-cookie snack in the Finnegan living room. Readers are introduced to the Holiday Falls, Ohio, Finnegan family – dad John, a newspaperman, mom Emma, siblings Annie and Michael – plus neighbors Margaret and Michael Bailey and their daughters Maureen and Colleen, and key walk-ons, from fellow pupil Cecil “Stinky” Lindquist to entertainer Bob Hope.
The various plots feature elves Henry and Francine, a magic music box, and the adventures, minor and major, that people can have over 30 years, the span of the tale. The most amazing is Louis’ relationship with Santa becoming an open secret to others, who accept it as readily as a Christmas present from a loved one.
Collins conjures a wistful time and setting, too.
“Santa smelled like fresh, wet snow, wood smoke, and something spicy, maybe cinnamon,” Collins writes.
After 1927, of course, Louis, his friends and family, community and country – and Santa – all experience the Great Depression and World War II as well as schoolyard bullies and youthful romance. And memories of coal-fired furnaces and Christmas-tree forts offer a return to a time that now seems simpler, if not as pure as a morning snowfall.
There’s an innocent, innate goodness to children conveyed, too, one that adults, then and now, recognize. Santa asks about kids, and Louis replies with honesty and humility: “We do our best.” But later he and a group of Santa-loving co-conspirators form a club to help the needy with gifts, not the least of which is empathy.
The book’s omniscient narrator follows Louis, but also observes helpful townspeople and a charming time that accepted enchanted moments as readily as ordinary struggles, in a small town near Cleveland or a big world served by a charitable being from the North Pole.
“The imagination is quite powerful when you are young,” Santa says to Louis and his once-and-future partner, Maureen, his red-haired, blue-eyed neighbor. “You have found a tremendous gift, and you will learn to use it better as you grow up. To discover that gift now, that you can travel through time and take others with you, is truly magical.”
Maturing, Louis brings along his youthful fascination with flight, from jaunts in a sleigh to assignments on a four-prop Lockheed Super “G” Constellation. Sometimes, the real world can be as wonderful as people dream it.
Later, chatting with Louis’ little brother, Santa adds, “Many people just do not realize that they can live the Christmas spirit the year ’round.”
That’s a lesson for all seasons from a book for all ages.
The paperback is available at independent local retailers, online sources including Amazon.com, and from the publisher, www.thenandnowmedia.com/