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December 13, 2010

M.L. Malcolm on Fake Trees and Real Writers

Posted by Anonymous

MLMalcolm.jpgM.L. Malcolm is an award-winning writer and the author of HEART OF LIES --- a gripping historical novel about a Hungarian fugitive, with a sequel, HEART OF DECEPTION, that’s due in stores this April. Today, she remembers how a not-quite-right Christmas sparked an unforeseen chain of events that ultimately inspired her to pick up a pen. 

I spent my formative years in a very small town in Florida. Now, when most people think “Florida,” they think of two overdeveloped, heavily populated and hurricane-prone coastlines, with nothing but Disney World, orange groves and a large swath of alligator-ridden swampland between them. In fact, most of Florida is made up of small towns, and when I was growing up there, “small” meant REALLY small. Our town had no McDonald’s, no movie theater, and only five traffic lights. The entire population could’ve fit into the corner of a collegiate sports stadium. But the town did have a library, and that was my salvation.

Christmas was always a bit of a tumultuous time at our house. For one, there was the annual battle about the tree. We’d moved to Florida from New York, where it snowed in December, kids had an excuse to drink hot cocoa after playing outside in the winter, and Santa had a reason to dress warmly. In New York, getting a real evergreen tree to decorate for Christmas was commonplace, and, more to the point, fairly inexpensive.

Floridians who wanted a live Christmas tree had to buy them from merchants who imported evergreens from places where they actually grow, like North Carolina. Shipping costs and the law of supply and demand drove the prices up considerably; and, having been cut several weeks before arriving in south Florida, the imported trees didn’t last long, either.

So every year, faced with what he viewed as an entirely unnecessary expense, my father threatened to buy a fake tree at the hardware store. Mind you, this was before the Chinese perfected the lovely, life-like silk trees one can buy now. The branches of the hardware store trees looked like long metal pipe cleaners sticking out of a tin pipe. They were meagerly sprinkled with papery green spikes and molted regularly. A deluxe model came with spray-on snow and a can of pine-scented aerosol spray.

They were hideous.

It took a lot of pleading, whining and pouting, but every year my siblings and I managed to coerce my father into buying a real tree. I suppose our gifts were commensurately less expensive, but we never made that connection. We were always appropriately grateful that he capitulated…until the year that he didn’t.

There was no discussion. One afternoon Dad simply came home with the abomination in a box. I watched in horror as he assembled it in the living room, not wanting to believe that he had betrayed us all with such indifference.

Well, everyone else in my family eventually became accustomed to the imposter, but not me. I was repulsed by the nasty thing, and I expressed my opinion loudly and vociferously, to the point where they were all more aggravated with me than they were appalled by the Unconscionable Violation of Religious Principals and Holiday Aesthetics that the counterfeit tree represented (not to mention that fake pine smell…yuck). 

Looking back, I think the tree bothered me so much because it represented all the terrifying changes we were facing in our life as a family. My parents’ marriage was crumbling --- at times quite publicly. But at 11 years old, I wasn’t sufficiently self-aware or sophisticated enough to understand my own subconscious reactions. I just hated that phony tree.

One afternoon during the school holidays, I went to the library to sulk and distract myself from the tragedy of the bogus tree and all the other unpleasantries that had boiled to the surface of our lives that Christmas. The library was my home away from home. It was my sanctuary.

On that particular day, I had grabbed a Victoria Holt gothic romance and settled into my favorite chair, ready to escape to the land of my imagination, when I suddenly started to cry. I tried not to make any noise, but I wasn’t entirely successful; I guess the loud sniffing gave me away, for I soon felt a gentle presence next to me and uncovered my eyes to see one of the librarians standing there, holding a Kleenex. 

“Is everything all right?” she asked. 

I reached for the Kleenex and shook my head. “My dad bought a fake tree this year.” 

She looked a little skeptical, no doubt wondering why that alone would cause me such grief, but decided not to inquire further. “Sometimes when Christmas doesn’t go the way you plan, good things come out of it,” she responded, and then it was my turn to look dubious. 

She smiled down at me. “Wait just a moment,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

I took this opportunity to blow my nose rather loudly. She reappeared with a book in her hand. “Have you ever read this?” she asked, holding it out to me.

I took the book from her. “LITTLE WOMEN,” I read aloud. “What’s it about?”

She paused before answering. “It’s about a Christmas that doesn’t go quite right, and how that eventually leads to good things, and it’s about a family that has some terrible problems, but a lot of fun, too, because they all love each other. Mostly it’s about a young girl named Jo. She reminds me of you.”

“She does?” Now this was unexpected. This was high praise. A character in a book? Me? I opened the book to first page. 

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug,” I read. And I kept reading. The librarian slipped away. I read and read until the lights above me blinked on and off, signaling that the library was about to close. The sun was setting. I would just make it home before dark if I rode at top speed. I bolted to the checkout desk.

“Merry Christmas,” my librarian said to me as I handed her my library card. And I smiled a smile that felt like the first real smile I’d smiled in days.

With the book safely in my bike basket, I pedaled furiously toward home; my mind raced just as quickly. What if my father had been sent away to war? What if my little sister had come down with scarlet fever? Was I really like Jo? I certainly loved making up plays and writing stories. And I was bossy and stubborn. Could that really be me?

By the time I finished the book the next day, I knew that it could be me. It was me. Like Jo and her creator, I was a writer. I just was. 

And the first story I wrote after finishing that book was about a little Christmas tree and a boy lost in the forest, who finds his way home by following the lights that magically appear on the tree before him. 

I, too, had found a way out of the darkness.

Tomorrow, Holly McQueen tells the hilariously funny story of a totally unexpected Christmas gift and reflects on why the holiday season is a time for letting go.