I have to admit that Alex Haley’s novella, A Different Kind of Christmas, was not what I expected. Around the holiday season, I like to immerse myself in novels, films, decorations, foods, and even clothes which help to create the atmosphere of one of my most cherished times of the year. Without having read Roots: The Saga of an American Family, I trusted Haley’s popularity, and picked up this book with the thought that it might be a quality piece of literature, which included a holiday theme. As I read, I noticed some aspects of the text which I found perplexing. First, the main focus of the tale is not Christmas; the author only mentions the holiday as a detail in the last few pages; the title is deceiving. Next, the writing is simplistic and uneccessarily descriptive, leaving the reader wondering about the author’s intentions.
The story is about Randall Fletcher, a wealthy plantation owner’s son from North Carolina who is attending Princeton University, where he encounters a group of Quaker students who are opposed to slavery due to their religious beliefs. Fletcher takes a trip to Pennsylvania with the three Quaker brothers where he learns about the Northern Area Underground Railroad and Vigilance Committee, which are located in Philadelphia. He subsequently begins to think differently about slavery and the treatment of black people. On the surface, the plot does not sound terrible and it isn’t.
The problems a reader encounters come from the execution of the piece. While many writers are able to include historical information into prose in a competent fashion, when Haley includes history or facts, his writing reads more like a textbook. Is his purpose to convey what occurred in the past or tell the story of Fletcher? One assumes that the history and protagonist’s struggle to comprehend his place in it are intended to flow together, but there is a disturbing sense of discontinuity throughout. I partially attribute this to the author’s constant inclusion of obvious statements and use of simple language.
If I had not known the name Alex Haley, I admit that I would have immediately dismissed this work. In any case, I re-examined why the author was using effortless and undemanding modes of communication. Haley appeared to purposefully remind his reader of all the history and politics from the Antebellum time period. If it were deliberate, the portrayal of a rich white man as unintelligent is the perfect role reversal for characterizations of black individuals in the slave narratives of Abolitionist and Sentimentalist writings. In these depictions, black protagonists were less intelligent so that white readers would not feel threatened. Still, if Haley is making a statement about slave narratives through this novella, the lack of intelligence of the main character is exaggerated, making the story difficult to read.
For those who enjoy African American literature or novels with historical subject matter, I would look elsewhere for reading material. In fact, I cannot think of another book I have read in this genre with less literary merit. I know it sounds harsh, but there are so many wonderful selections out there, this one is not worth the time it takes to read.
Final Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars
For more information:
Alex Haley Bio– Kunta Kite Foundation