Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Santa and Pete

Santa and Pete: A Novel of Christmas Present and Past
© 1998 Christopher Moore and Pamela Johnson
176 pages

Seven year-old Terrence has no interest in spending his Saturdays keeping his elderly grandfather company while the older man runs his bus route.Who wants to be cooped up on a bus listening to an old man's stories when he could be outside playing? And the stories don't even make sense; they're about a place called New Amsterdam, a place grandpa seems to see when he looks out the window and sees New York. Instead of skyscrapers and apartment complexes, Terrence's grandfather acts as though he lives in a 17th century harbor town, where immigrants throughout Europe and Africa lived together and tried to make a world for themselves. Terrence can't help but notice the way passengers respond to the stories, though -- they lean forward, eyes bright, minds captivated by the way their driver can connect them with the past. And one snowy Christmas eve, when the bus breaks down in a blizzard, they are forced to wait -- but in the meantime, break out snacks from their shopping and hunker down while they're told the story of a man named St. Nicholas and his good friend Pete.

The story is set in a Christmas long ago, when Nicholas and his friend Peter traveled from the Netherlands to the New World, after hearing that the children there were in distress. They find the town  (New Amsterdam) enduring a poor harvest, a harsh winter, and on the verge of war with the natives. This being a Christmas story, Nicholas and Pete bring hope, peace, and friendship to the town and its perceived foes. Author Christopher Moore (not of Lamb fame) has produced a story that is a fascinating mix of fantasy, legend, and mythic history. I doubt many Americans are familar with the Dutch Christmas mythos, in which St. Nicholas arrives in town accompanied not by elves, but by a black man of Moorish descent named Piet -- or multiple black men. David Sedaris wrote about Christmas in Holland in the sketch, "Six to Eight Black Men". Although Sedaris revels in the absurdest aspects of the legend, here Moore presents the story of the two men in all seriousness. Their close friendship in a time of ethnic conflict should speak to American audiences, and despite playing fast and loose with both history and convention myth, the story itself is a charmer.

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