A well-written Christmas story is a treasure to find, and the Press Democrat’s historical fiction serial, “XMAS SR 06” fulfills that promise. Each of the seven chapters was created by a different author, and the good news is that the overall writing is excellent, sometimes great. I’ve reread a couple of the more well-turned chapters with envy of the author’s talents with word and phrase.
Less successful was its presentation as a serial. With each chapter constrained to about 1,200 words, plot trumps prose; writers had to begin by resolving the situation from the previous chapter and finish with a setup for the next. That doesn’t leave much room to stretch out and explore a character or subplot. “XMAS SR ’06” suffers because of this, and I would not have enjoyed the series as much if not for finding the extended version of chapter three on the author’s blog. It’s almost three times longer than the printed version and puts flesh on the character’s otherwise thin bones; definitely read it instead of the abbreviation that appeared in the paper and on its web site.
The other significant problem is that “XMAS SR ’06” is supposed to be set in 1906 Santa Rosa, yet there’s very little there there – and for that matter, there’s scant little then there. Change just a few words in each chapter and the story could have taken place after the 1940 London Blitz or the 1864 sacking of Atlanta. The historical aspect of most of the writing comes across as if the authors were playing a game of Mad Libs: Reach into the hat and pull out the name of an old patent medicine, a quaint bit of slang and a name of something or a place associated with Santa Rosa. See you 1,200 words later.
Then there are the factual mistakes. The worst clinker is in chapter one, when the main character walks down Fourth street and comments on the missing courthouse: “I’d passed it 100 times since April, but still I couldn’t get used to seeing that big empty lot.” Surprise! The wreckage of courthouse was still there at the time of the story. Only a few weeks earlier, on Nov. 17, the city had finally awarded the contract to demolish the ruins, and it wasn’t until May, 1907, before the lot was cleared of the last shrubbery. And even when the authors got it right, they got it wrong. A plot point concerns a newspaper ad for an unbreakable doll that was “torn from Grandpa’s precious Press Democrat.” Just such an advertisement really did appear – but only in the rival Santa Rosa Republican, which presumably didn’t meet his standards of preciousness.
I could quibble further (much, much further), but I’m sure the authors would argue that they had artistic license to write as they please. I completely agree with that. But if it’s called “historical” fiction, it should have more than a homeopathic droplet of true, historical elements. Otherwise, what’s the point? Turn 1906 Santa Rosa into a fishing village and after the earthquake hits, have seagulls attack townspeople. Everyone pecked to death becomes a zombie (wait! a swordfighting zombie!) until Luther Burbank battles the army of the undead with the enchanted silver spade given to him by the king of the garden gnomes.
Because the factual history of Santa Rosa’s 1906 Christmas wasn’t incorporated into the story, everybody lost. Readers missed a rare opportunity to learn something about the town; the writers lost the chance to tell a better tale. If that little girl was morose from passing by an empty lot, for example, imagine how awful she would have felt about scuffling along next to the hulking shambles of the old courthouse – a depressing reminder of the earthquake that stubbornly couldn’t be ignored and wouldn’t be wished away. The writers even had the chance to describe exactly what it was like downtown that month. At a city council meeting the Fire Chief complained about “dangerous holes and planks across sidewalks, projections from buildings and piles of materials on sidewalks.” In other words, the characters would have been Christmas shopping in the middle of a busy and hazardous construction zone. That’s a colorful detail worth a mention, right?
But saddest of all, those who outlined the plot for “XMAS SR ’06” overlooked real events that would have transformed the story into something far more interesting. That same month, Santa Rosa was hotly divided over what to do with the $60,000 that had accumulated in the earthquake relief fund. The popular consensus was that it should be distributed to victims and their survivors, which is surely what donors intended. On the other side was a faction arguing it should be used for the betterment of the town, such as putting it into the Building Fund to pay for the new courthouse. Leading those who wanted to grab the money for city hall was the Press Democrat, which took the position that individuals harmed by the disaster were no longer in distress, so they didn’t deserve anything: “Those who suffered injury are in no need of assistance and those who suffered not at all are really better off than they ever were before,” PD editor Ernest Finley argued, Scrooge-like. Only after a bitter fight was it agreed that the money should go to those who suffered.
For the characters of “XMAS SR ’06,” the outcome of that decision could have been life-changing. If the money were to go to the victims and survivors, the motherless children and widower father stood to be awarded many hundreds, even a few thousand dollars – enough money to restart their pre-quake business and resume something like a normal family life. A happy ending (somewhat). Without the money, the family would continue plodding along its mournful, directionless path. You can bet everyone in the story would have followed every daily turn in the debate with avid and nervous interest as their fates were being decided.
And, of course, it would also have been fun to explore Grandpa’s conflicted relationship with his “precious Press Democrat” once he realized the newspaper wanted to screw over his family. That could have been a chapter in itself: “ANGRY GRANDPA CANCELS HIS PRESS DEMOCRAT SUBSCRIPTION.” I can’t imagine why that wasn’t part of the “XMAS SR ’06” story.