Mike Pride: In new book, Donald Hall writes of a Christmas he's always wanted
The Kearsarge Poetry Festival featured discussions with the new U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall and Maxine Kumin (moderated by Mike Pride).
October 7, 2006
(Concord Monitor photo/Lori Duff)
Christmas at Eagle Pond, by Donald Hall (drawings by Mary Azarian). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 78 pages, $14.95. FOR A BREAKOUT BOX: Donald Hall will appear at Red River Theatres Thursday (12/6) at 6 p.m. The event, sponsored by Gibson’s Bookstore, is
Gramp tells stories and recites “Casey at the Bat.” Aunt Caroline, an English teacher, cherishes the Greek classics. Gram writes daily penny postcards to each of her three grown daughters, who respond in kind. Uncle Luther preaches from the pulpit of the South Danbury Church.
These relatives from earlier generations fawned over Donald Hall whenever they had the chance. Is it any wonder that their “Donnie” became a poet?
In Christmas at Eagle Pond, a short book that falls somewhere between novella and memoir, Hall resurrects his beloved elders for Christmas 1940 on the Wilmot farm where he has lived for the last 37 years. Readers of his poetry, especially Kicking the Leaves (1978) and The Happy Man (1986), will recognize both the landscape and its ghosts. In such poems as “Names of Horses” and “Great Day in the Cows’ House,” the same characters abide in the same lost rural culture. Hall first brought them to the page in String Too Short to Be Saved, his 1961 memoir.
Lately he has been writing prose essays for the New Yorker, Playboy and other magazines. Writing Christmas at Eagle Pond, a book suggested by his agent, started him on this road. He had just decided to quit poetry, and the essays kept him writing while freeing him from the rigors of the poetic line. For the most part his essays are nonfiction – actual events sifted through memory and seasoned with the wisdom of age.
This book is not quite that. The cover calls it “a story,” and as Hall acknowledges in a short afterword that would have better served readers as a foreword, the Christmas gathering at the Wilmot farm never happened. The characters are real, and Hall knew the farm 72 years ago from spending summers there, but he was never there for Christmas in those days. He writes in the afterword: “In this book, I have given myself the thing I most wanted, a boyhood Christmas at Eagle Pond Farm.”
In the process, he has given readers a wonderful holiday story that evokes a different time and place. Trains make milk runs, and phones have cranks and are on party lines.
Except for the coffee, most farm meals are all home-grown. Buggies and wagons still share Route 4 with automobiles. World War II is brewing, and radio has enlarged the world, but there is no television, no internet.
The hand-held devices of the day are pitchforks, axes and ladles.
Reading Christmas at Eagle Pond reminded me of a holiday tradition in our house. When our boys were the right age, we read a Christmas story aloud each year. Often it was Willem Lange’s “Favor Johnson,” in which the title character delivered homemade fruitcakes to neighbors in a snowy New England village.
In this wired age, Hall’s book might be a bit long for one sitting, but the spirit of the season ripples through it. The characters are alive in his head, and the writing makes the familiar seem fresh and beautiful. Consider his description of Mount Kearsarge from the farmhouse’s front yard:
“Tall elms rose on both sides of Route 4. Farther away Mount Kearsarge loomed as it did in the kitchen window, deity of the sandy lowlands. It was only about three thousand feet high, what in the West would be considered a foothill, but here it seemed huge. I could see the light blinking on its watchtower. Kearsarge was conical, like a spent volcano, and it lifted its snow-covered trees to a flat patch of bare rock, gradually turning bright with snow as the rising sun caught the mountain. Each summer I climbed Kearsarge. My mother and her sisters climbed it when they were girls, my grandmother Kate before them, and I’m sure all my ancestors at Eagle Pond Farm.”
In the realm of the mountain in 1940 the community gathers for carols and the church nativity pageant. At home, the family catches up on the home news and remembers a favorite cousin, feasts on homegrown hens and slices of pie, and shares modest but well-chosen gifts. For Donnie Hall, it is everything he ever wanted the holiday to be, a Christmas to remember, if only in his imagination.
(Mike Pride of Concord is the Monitor’s editor emeritus.)