- Matchless: A Christmas Story
- William Morrow, 112 pp.
A Little Lightness for Dark Times
Folding is a baking technique in which light, airy substances such as whipped egg whites are gently combined with denser ingredients like melted chocolate. Novice bakers used to simply opening a box and adding a cup of water will often speed through the process, breaking down precious air pockets, and end up with a dense cake or, horror of horrors, a fallen soufflé. But those that master this technique can be proud of their heavenly, light-as-air desserts.
Gregory Maguire, the master of fairy tale re-imaginings and author of, among others, Wicked, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and Lost, attempts the literary version of this baking technique in his new, slim volume, Matchless. Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story, “The Little Match Girl,” is effectively folded together with the story of Frederik Pedersen, a similarly bereft pauper from a single-parent household. The original story is bookended by Frederik’s tale of woe and renewal, and the result is a satisfying, if sentimental, mix of dark and light, sad and hopeful.
Like the little match girl, Frederik must help provide for the household, which consists of himself and his mother, the widow Pedersen. In order to do so, the young boy hangs out by the docks, scaring fish out of the mouths of gulls. He is essentially a scavenger, in the same way the gulls are scavengers. At the same time, Frederik is also a collector of “bits of beautiful trash:” old fishing nets, empty thread spools, acorns, a cracked dish—all the small, discarded things deemed unworthy by others. These things Frederik brings home to use as toys, to incorporate into his fantasy world. Of course, Frederik is one of those unworthy, discarded bits. But in his imagination, he is governor of a whole town.
When his mother is called away to work on Christmas, Frederik decides his town needs a boat, and he disappears into the streets. His path crosses, briefly, with the little match girl, whose end is well-known. “The Little Match Girl” has always been one of Andersen’s darkest tales, with overtones of child abuse and neglect leading to the girl’s death. This version is, necessarily, cleaned up a bit. Gone are the insinuations of abuse on the part of the father, for he now has a part to play in Frederik’s happiness. And, strangely, the little match girl’s final vision is of her mother rather than her grandmother. This change was made, perhaps, to strengthen the connection between the girl and Frederik. For, as she returns to the loving arms of her mother, Frederik eventually discovers a father’s love.
In an interview with NPR, Maguire had this to say about his heroine, “Her brief life and sad demise could bring 19th century readers to tears, and did. Now, while we shudder at the fatalism of her plight, we can’t deny the grip that cold and hunger maintains over the poor. In ‘Matchless’ I tried to honor Andersen’s original tale while maintaining the poignancy of the central event, and by setting it in a larger context I hoped to extend and perhaps refresh its ability to console.” The theme of consolation is indeed in danger of being overlooked by a modern reader of which it cannot be assumed that he or she believes in heaven. For those individuals, the match girl’s vision of shelter, food, and family, her heaven, is hollow. But the more concrete “heaven” of Frederik’s new family is something that can offer consolation regardless of religious belief.
Matchless was originally composed by Maguire for the radio, and the story retains a sense of immediacy which makes it a quick read. Some pages contain only a sentence or two, and Maguire has included his own “illuminations” or sketches, to illustrate the story. There’s a lovely energy to Maguire’s drawings which complements the action of the story, and he plays with light and shadow in the same way visually as he does textually. These two formatting choices make the book ideal for children, something which is not true for his other re-imaginings.
For those of you expecting the deeper political and moral considerations found in Maguire’s novels, beware. You are bound to be disappointed by this confection of a book. But if you’re in tune with your inner child, the one who makes toys out of trash and whole worlds out of thin air, enjoy. Matchless is everything you could want in a holiday story for hard economic times. It offers a spark of light in the face of looming poverty and confirms that better, brighter futures await us all. Young readers will enjoy this kinder version of Andersen’s original, as well as Maguire’s simple, but emotional line drawings. And the secular among us will appreciate that happiness can be found on Earth as well as in Heaven.