One of the great times in my life was the ten years during which I read to my daughter Julia every night before her bedtime. (My wife enjoyed the same with our daughter Alice.) Along with many other picture books, fairy tales, poetry collections, even The Hobbit and the first Harry Potter book (one was enough for me), we made our way through all the Frank L. Baum Oz books. Wildly uneven, each Oz tale had its own treasures, and we didn’t think even one of them a total dud.
Gregory Maguire, of course, is the new standard bearer for the Oz kingdom, with his ongoing series of “Wicked” novels. (Here’s my PopMatters review of the latest in the series: A Lion Among Men.)
Maquire has made a career retelling, or, more accurately, re-imagining great stories, such as his novel-length versions of Snow White and Cinderella. He can also concoct his own strange brews, as he did with the scintillating Lost.
Now he’s written Matchless, A Christmas Story, a brief “reillumination”, as he calls it, of “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen. The bleak story of the poor little Match Girl who imagines she sees her dead grandmother as she freezes to death is left largely intact (though it’s her mother she sees here), but is framed by the story of Frederick, a poor little boy who also comes close to dying from the elements, but is saved by the Match Girl’s guiding spirit. He goes on to live a somewhat improved existence when his mother marries the Little Match Girl’s father and their fortunes improve.
Matchless is a clever rescue of the Andersen story, bookending its sadness with a more hopeful tale, and, by changing the time frame from New Year’s Eve to Christmas Eve, making it much more appropriate for young children.
With many somewhat clumsy but effective illustrations by the author himself (Maguire’s usual illustrator, Douglas Smith, being perhaps too dark for the purpose), Matchless was written to be read aloud and is the perfect length for a single bedtime reading.
I’ll keep my copy and look forward to reading it to Julia’s children someday.