Our Town Books Reviews: The Night Before Christmas

The Night Before ChristmasThis book review originally appeared in the Jacksonville newspaper, The Source.

The Night Before Christmas
By Clement C. Moore.
Illustrated by Douglas Gorsline.
32 pp. Random House. $3.99.

In early December, Dr. “Chet” Bone of Jacksonville received a heartfelt standing ovation from a crowd of several hundred at the Governor Duncan Gala. It wasn’t just because he is a beloved and trusted medical doctor. It wasn’t because he has delivered at least 4,500 babies in our town. And people weren’t applauding just because he’s now age 99.

They were cheering, instead, his performance of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement C. Moore–a poem Dr. Bone knows by heart and clearly loves. I like to think that perhaps as a child it was read to him every Christmas and that he, in turn, has read it aloud to other generations of children.

It’s a wonderful tradition. And like so many traditions, we tend to want things to remain exactly the same over time. Maybe that’s why my all-time favorite version of “The Night Before Christmas” is an inexpensive Random House paperback illustrated by Douglas Gorsline. We used to read it to our children, and it’s still in the stack of books near our fireplace every Christmas Eve.

Gorsline’s illustrations evoke both the peace and the excitement of a Victorian-era North American Christmas Eve. There’s the snow-covered village–looking just a bit like Jacksonville, the night sky illuminated by one huge star, the cluttered home with four children all sound asleep in one room–with a fifth tucked warmly in a crib in his parents’ room.

St. Nicholas is just right, too. Despite the Surgeon-General, he cheerfully smokes his pipe and the smoke encircles “his head like a wreath” just the way it has since the poem was written in 1822. (Some recent versions, have eliminated these lines.)

But it’s the cat I love. A small black kitten appears in every detailed interior scene, doing cat-like things: gazing disdainfully down at a sleeping dog, bathing on a window-sill with one hind leg gracefully raised (cat owners will recognize this classic pose), leaning affectionately against Santa’s bundle of toys. Watch for the cat.

Curious about Douglas Gorsline, I did some checking. He was a 20th-century artist who was originally part of the American Wave movement. He was particularly interested in expressing movement and studied “Cubist compositions as a means of approaching the real.” There are four sequential panels of St. Nick descending into the fireplace (much to the alarm of that cat) that capture this interest beautifully.

I had often wondered why the four sleeping children had both a map of the United States and a poster of France pinned to their bedroom wall. It turns out Gorsline moved to France in 1964 and lived there for the rest of his life. There is, in fact, a small museum dedicated to his work in Côte-d’Or, France.

But what made me unreasonably happy was when I read that Gorsline married the daughter of my “favorite” editor, Maxwell Perkins. Perkins edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Thomas Wolfe among others.

But what really matters is that there exists a beautifully illustrated, inexpensive version of a classic American Christmas poem. With a terrific cat.

Reviewed by Sally Nurss

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