Thursday, December 24, 2009

"The Cardboard Star"

Yesterday and the day before I posted entries on John D MacDonald's two Christmas short stories, "Dead on Christmas Street" and "Open Before Christmas." I had surmised, based on the stories I own and the titles of the ones I don't own, that these were the only two he had written. Well, I was wrong, and how I discovered it is almost a Christmas story unto itself.

I'm always on the lookout for JDM works I don't own. The Internet in general, and eBay in particular, are full of booksellers advertising old magazines, many containing stories I don't yet have. Unfortunately, the prices these merchants charge are usually out of my range, given the sheer number of stories I am missing. I wouldn't mind paying $15 for an old copy of Collier's if there weren't hundreds of other magazines out there I needed as well. Occasionally I will come across someone selling something I need at a reasonable price, and then I either buy or bid. Two weeks ago I began bidding on a batch of 18 issues of The American Legion Magazine from 1951 and 1952. MacDonald published only one story in the periodical back in December 1951, something called "The Cardboard Star," and I was delighted to see that the issue in question was among those for sale. The opening bid was a whopping $1.74 and I bid $5.00; a week later I won. The magazines arrived today, Christmas Eve, and I was dumbstruck to learn that "The Cardboard Star" was a Christmas story!

I suppose it should have been obvious to me, what with the title and the fact that it was published in a December issue, but I thought -- never having read an issue of The American Legion Magazine -- that it was a military story and that the star in the title was an officer's star. It turned out to have nothing to do with the military, but is a tale of a broken marriage, and the transforming power of this particular holiday. As a Christmas story, I think it's MacDonald's best, and is certainly the most sentimental and touching.

It's Christmas Eve (!) and Paul Wyath is angrily walking around the inside of his big, empty suburban house. Outside he can see the lights from the neighbors' house, where a Christmas party is taking place, one that he and his wife Martha had been invited to. But Martha isn't here. She and Paul have been separated and this will be their first Christmas apart. The kids are with Martha, who is now living with her mother. The lights and sounds of the party bring back memories of last year's party and the beginning of what Paul calls "the trouble":

"He winced as he remembered that he had been a casualty the year before -- trying to put bourbon on a big case of Tom and Jerrys. And on Christmas Day, complete with hangover, there had been the big brawl about Sylvia Bradley, the redhead. He couldn't remember much about Sylvia, but all he could remember had been bad."

Or perhaps it was buying this house, one that they could not really afford and located in a neighborhood where they did not belong: "...the standards of the people who lived on Arden Lane had not been the standards of the Paul and Martha Wyath of other, less-affluent neighborhoods." But upward mobility and multiple promotions had brought them here, "in a forty-thousand dollar ranch-type arrangement, completely surrounded by other similar edifices filled with neurotic wives and hospitable liquor." Feeling sorry for himself, Paul now realizes he has become "a cheap 1950 edition of something out of Scott Fitzgerald, complete even to making scenes at the country club and snarling at your kids."

Deciding that he can not spend Christmas Eve alone in the house, he gets ready to leave for the local hotel when he hears a car pull up. He opens the door and sees Martha. But despite the "tremulous hope" Paul feels in his heart, Martha is only there to collect a few Christmas tree ornaments, things she was supposed to take when she moved out but had forgotten.

Is that really why she's there? Yes, re

"He looked into her eyes and saw no other motive there. No other chance there, for him. All the ugly, uncomfortable things had been said. It was finished and done -- beyond repair."

They pull out some old boxes and Martha goes through them, pulling out the few things she needs for her mother's much smaller tree. Then Martha finds a particular ornament, one that has a uniquely familiar history...

"The Cardboard Star" is about as sentimental as MacDonald ever got, which is to say, not very. But the things that man was able to express in not many words is awe-inspiring, and when he got it right, he got it right. Here, he nailed it. Having never seen the story before, I have to say it's the best "new" Christmas story I've read in many, many years. The ending presents a near-perfect balance of realism and transcendence.

I'm amazed that the story has never been anthologized. I can only guess that it's due to the fact that it appeared in a relatively obscure magazine, and one not known for publishing fiction. Hopefully an editor out there will discover its peculiar charm and present it to a wider audience. It certainly deserves to be read again.

Update (3/7/2015):

I've just discovered that The American Legion has digitized almost the entire run of The American Legion Magazine, and this issue is available to download free of charge:

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