Written By: Gregory Maguire
Published By: William Morrow
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
It’s that time of year again. Radio stations are playing Christmas music and have been since the weekend before Thanksgiving. Stores have been pushing Christmas items and advertising Christmas sales (starting long before Halloween). Santa is in the stores taking photos with all the kids. The 25 Days of Christmas have begun on ABC Family. And it’s time for me to check out some books with Christmas themes in the days leading up to the holidays. That’s why when I saw Matchless: A Christmas Story by Gregory Maguire, I had to check it out.
In 2008, National Public Radio asked Gregory Maguire to compose a story with a Christmas theme. He came up with a tale based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Now, if you know Gregory Maguire, you know that he has a special way of recreating older fairy tales. Wicked, his re-imagination of The Wizard of Oz, made him famous. But Wicked was not exactly a rated PG tale. If NPR was asking for this tale, I figured it would probably be a lot cleaner than Wicked, but was really uncertain what to expect from Matchless.
I barely remembered The Little Match Girl, but I certainly remembered that it was very sad. As it turns out, The Little Match Girl actually takes place on New Year’s Eve. Gregory Maguire moved the tale to Christmas Eve to make it more Christmas appropriate. The little girl selling matches is still there, but this story has a very uplifting twist.
Young Frederick is the son of the Queen’s seamstress. They don’t have much money, but they get by thanks to the clumsiness of the Queen and her penchant for stepping on and ripping her hem seams. Frederick has a secret in the attic, a collection of items he has found on the street and transformed into a small city.
One Christmas Eve, Frederick wanders out late at night after his mother heads off to the Queen’s rescue. Looking for items to add to his secret collection, Frederick finds a slipper that he believes will make a great ship for the family of two who inhabit his special town. Little does he know that the slipper belongs to a little girl who lost it while trying to sell matches on this cold winter’s night.
Ashamed to go home when she has not earned a penny in her trade this night, the girl hunkers down in an alley and begins to light the matches in an effort to get warm. She laments the loss of her slippers which had originally belonged to her mother, the only thing she had left of her mother after her death. With each match she lights, she imagines that she catches a glimpse of her mother and longs to be with her once again. Her wish is granted that night.
On Christmas Day, Frederick finds a key in his newly acquired slipper and realizes that the slipper may not have been abandoned purposely. He asks his mother to take him to the address attached to the key so he can return the slipper. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the home, he learns that the family living there is in mourning this Christmas. Somehow, the two families – that of the little match girl and that of Frederick and his mother – unite. One year later, Frederick’s life is in danger, but help from beyond lights the way. Can the mysterious light keep him safe for his newfound family?
While The Little Match Girl was a sad tale, Matchless: A Christmas Story is an uplifting tale offering a sense of hope and happiness in this re-imagination of the well-known Andersen tale. I’m surprised that Maguire would come up with such a positive tale, knowing his sarcastic and pessimistic side revealed in the books of The Wicked Years. There is a sense of sorrow here, but this sorrow is turned into something positive. In this tale, the match girl’s death is still sad, but not fruitless and serves as a ray of hope and love. Definitely the Christmas story it professes to be and a great tale for me to read to jump start the Christmas spirit this year.