Keller’s Christmas fable is a cautionary tale. Like a dour preacher in a Sunday pulpit, she points an accusatory finger at our obsession with material things, the very luxuries that bring the Hobart family to financial ruin, their spoiled teens bickering ad nauseum and nine-year-old Sam fearful of what the future holds. In the midst of luxury, technological gadgets, wide creen TVs, a home gym and a 5,000 square-foot house, James Hobart has lost his power job, gambled the family savings and come up empty,, raging like an angry bull when he finally admits the enormity of his actions to his shocked wife.
Meg reacts predictably: she’s furious, perhaps more so than if her husband had cheated. “How can I ever trust you again?” she wails. Meg needs her anger and the unrestrained fury of a few lashes of the whip to alleviate the pain, but James balks, unwilling to apologize in a meaningful way. So much for communication. This emotional disconnect filters down to the incessantly arguing Lizzie, 15, and Will, 13. Typically self-involved, they cannot conceive of the changes ahead, including a depressing future with James’s smug I-told-you-so in-laws.
An accident on a dark road in Pennsylvania propels the Hobarts into the bosom of the Lutz family and an Amish community that offers temporary respite while the family car is being repaired. For James and Meg, the culture shock is a reprieve from the rancor of the last few weeks, but their involuntary immersion in the last century grates on the very unlikable teens - which leads one to speculate on Meg’s parenting skills. A full-time mother with a color-coded list of her family’s every activity, Meg welcomes this new environment, although, clearly, everyone will fall in line by the end of the story.
In what seems like centuries ago but are really only decades, ladies’ monthly magazines routinely published inspirational holiday stories meant to evoke old values. An Amish Christmas is a similar, if lengthier, homage to the American talent for reinvention. Even while a bit contrived, Keller writes with conspiratorial charm. Couldn’t this happen to anyone? Aren’t the Amish refreshing? Maybe we wouldn’t chose to stay there indefinitely, but the Amish community is a wonderful place to visit, a sanctuary from the howling winds of unpredictability that leave us wide-eyed at night, the flickering light of TV screens and computers calming our anxieties.
Keller’s message is simple: Too much. Ripping off the bandage of economic extravagance, the wound bleeds freely, Meg’s outrage thwarted by her husband’s unwillingness to accept the enormity of his decisions (like the corporations saved by TARP money), the kids kicking and screaming. (A caveat I can’t resist: Keller does contribute to the plethora of feel-good books inundating public consciousness, a harkening to the past that belies the inevitability of progress. Yes, you can enjoy a heartwarming story, but no, you can’t go home again.) A pre-holiday release ensures availability in time for the Christmas season. Obviously, extravagance is not the appropriate expression of the spirit of Christmas - but a purchase at a bookstore wouldn’t be remiss.