BY SEAN CLARK
Author: R. William Bennett
2011, Shadow Mountain
Filed Under: Literary, Historical.
I’ve been reading a bunch of Halloweenish books lately (you’ll notice werewolves and cemeteries in my upcoming reviews), and while Bennett’s retelling of A Christmas Carol does feature ghosts, it’s (somewhat obviously) a full-on Christmas story, probably even more so than its inspiration.
The story begins just a little before the events of Dickens’s classic. Marley is alive and a ruthless business man. He forsook any sort of interpersonal relationship for the almighty buck. He takes on a young financial prodigy as a partner (Scrooge audaciously refuses to apprentice), teaches him all he knows about being ruthless, then dies with only Scrooge begrudgingly by his side, waiting with impatience to sieze his mentor’s assets. But just before dying, Marley has an ephiphany, and he regrets his avaricious life.
Because of this final moment, Marley finds forgiveness in the afterlife. He does penance by wandering the world as a shade, dragging heavy, chest-laden chains that rattle behind him. Marley blames himself for Scrooge being and even crueler, more miserly dick, so he petitions the spirits of the afterlife to allow him to help Scrooge. If he fails, Marley will have to continue to drag his chains–and Scrooge’s–for eternity. From there the book is a faithful retelling of A Christmas Carol, written from the perspective of Marley, who, Bennett tells us, was always there, just invisible to Dickens’s protagonist.
Despite it occurring on a Christian holiday, I’ve always read A Christmas Carol as largely, like much of Dickens’s work, more about social contract and free will than any sort of lesson in piety. But Marley, and through him this book, seems more concerned with Scrooge’s eternal salvation. Scrooge’s redemption as Dickens wrote it was not a Christian repentance. He reforms his ways for the betterment of man, and finds personal reward in that offering. Bennett’s tale offers more of a trickle-down morality scheme, a golden-rule, pay-it-forward kind of thing. In the end, of course, the resulting message is the same: as Abe Lincoln once put it, “Be excellent to each other–and party on, dudes.”
Bennet never narrates with blunt religiosity. Christianity isn’t discussed besides through implication in Marley’s first meeting with a spirit in the afterlife–“Are you…Him?” But under the surface there’s a seemingly much more pointed agenda:
“Ebenezer would have chased him out with a rod?”
The spirit nodded, “He might have. But he also might have thought, ‘Who is this man who needs nothing from me, but only wishes me comfort?’ He might not have changed that moment, but that experience might have worked within him.[“]
It’s subtle, but there’s a tone at work in lines like this that smacks of religious pamphlets. Not that it ultimately matters, but dollars to donuts Bennett is either Mormon or Born Again. (His publisher’s mission statement proclaims they are “committed to providing books that offer values-based messages that strengthen individuals”–doesn’t say how they are funded.) The didactic tinge that gives me this feeling is not so potent as to ruin the book, but it’s certainly noticeable enough for me to recognize I’m not the ideal reader here.
But that’s not really a criticism of the book so much as a warning that this is for a certain readership. If that’s your cup of tea, you will really like this book. Bennett is an above average writer and pulls off a more than decent approximation of Dickensian style. The book is well structured and paced. And I admit I got drawn into it, feeling excited for what I knew was going to happen (funny how retellings always manage to at least tap that vein). If you like Christmas books, or just really like A Christmas Carol, this book is a good pick up. If you’re looking for an easy Christmas gift for a grandparent or holiday book to stick in a guest room this winter, this is a good choice I suppose. If you’re really into Dickens but not so much into God, you should probably pass.
Similar Reads: Drood (Simmons), The Resurrectionist (Bradley), Bloodline (Cary), Grendel (Gardiner).
[A review copy was provided.]