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Oct152018

Book Review: An Off-White Christmas

An Off-White Christmas. Donald G. Evans. Chicago: Eckhartz Press, October 19, 2018, Limited Edition Hardcover and Trade Paperback, 182 pages.

Reviewed by Dennis Hetzel.

The greatest pleasure of An Off-White Christmas might be that it’s a rewarding deception. 

As the title implies, the idea of “Christmas” is the thematic glue that holds these twelve stories by Chicago author Donald G. Evans together, but don’t expect a heartwarming, magical trip on Santa’s sleigh. It’s a deeper, darker, and more interesting ride than you might first expect. 

The cliché that you can’t judge a book by its cover certainly applies here. Hannah Jennings’ beautiful illustrations and even the script font used for the cover title lead the reader into thinking that inoffensive, pleasant vignettes will unfold. You can almost smell the gingerbread and feel the prick of pine needles as you examine the cover and thumb through the first few pages. 

The opening story, the source of the book’s title, doesn’t provide clues to some of the characters you’ll meet later, but immediately suggests that you’re in the hands of a writer with skill for description, setting, and dialogue:

I could hear Willie’s moose-call “Maaaa” all the way upstairs. I stopped rummaging, stopped breathing. “Maaaa.” That was the year Pa died, and from my spot in the crawl space it wasn’t too hard to believe in ghosts. “Maaaa.”

At first glance, “An Off-White Christmas” is about getting the best possible deal on a great Christmas tree. But it’s more so a story about family relationships, particularly between the narrator, Peggy, and her brother, Willie. One of Peggy’s initial descriptions of Willie is vivid and memorable:

“Ma wiped her hand on her rooster’s apron and looked through Willie as if he were an endlessly circling gnat.”

Some stories, including this one, don’t have much in the way of traditional endings. Conflicts come into sharp focus but are barely resolved; often they are just nudged a bit by glimpses of wisdom that the narrator gains by the story’s end. Just like in real life, Evans’ characters struggle to move three steps forward for every two steps back. Depending on the story, the lack of resolution or a big-deal climax is either exactly right or a bit of a problem. Either way, Evans always gives you something to ponder.

As you move through the collection, the stories get edgier, and several are anything but G-rated. You don’t expect to find “Christmas stories” written in the voices of atheists, gamblers, and teen-age females working for online sex sites. “Christmas Releases,” is a story that doesn’t work as smoothly as others, but readers will still be fascinated by Dana, a teen who displays sass and wisdom beyond her years while maintaining her virginity. Will she find a trustworthy relationship away from her computer screen on Christmas Eve? You’ll have to read to find out.

Evans is at his best in two stories that precede “Christmas Releases.” 

“Whatever’s Left of Normal” takes us to Kosovo during the Balkans war and the characters are confronted with a terrifying choice: whether or not to defy orders and leave their secure base to respond to the screams of a civilian victim that could be a trap. It’s a Christmas morning these soldiers will never forget. 

“One Person’s Garbage” introduces us to a man named Jolly—yes, it’s a holiday reference—who always outbids a younger competitor at auctions, stirring considerable cynicism and resentment. Then they meet. See if you think this tale has a classic Christmas ending.

Through it all, Evans works as a quiet provocateur and a bit of a chameleon. In the voices of very different narrators, he explores how past baggage and internal conflicts can collide with the meaningful relationships everyone seeks with those who mean the most to us.  It’s a book filled with shades of gray. After all, the word “off-white” is part of the title.

This is Evans’ third book and first short-story collection. Several of the stories were previously published in literary journals and many Chicago-area authors know him as the founding executive editor of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

 

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