The Firflake is melt-in-your-mouth sweet

The Firflake: a well-intended Christmas present

Christmas stories — especially deliberate Christmas stories — offer even an experienced writer every chance to fall into the trap of writing didactic and saccharine fables in place of real stories. For a novice, they are a treacherous territory indeed. I think the following passage will give you a pretty good idea of whether or not Anthony R. Cardno's venture into that realm of sentimentality and miracles might work for you.

"'I am not a superstitious man,' Nicholas replied. 'There are people who would say I am magic myself. The three young men of this family, I saved from drowning. There are rumors in villages miles from here which say I raised them from the dead.'

"'Did you?' I asked.

"'I know of no man short of the Son of God who could, and I am not he.' He paused, exhaling a cloud with every thought-filled breath. 'Your people's magic is that they hide well, and know how to travel quicker than we, and that you live longer. You are different from us in only the subtlest of ways. I don't always understand your people, but I accept you. These are hard times, and people fear what is different. So they exaggerate the subtleties and suddenly your people have horns or wings, or serve a darker god. I know better. We are all of us God's creatures, and loved by Him.' And then, Nicholas sighed heavily."

As you can see, Cardno's Christmas story is one of magic, aspiring towards myth, but with a hard-to-swallow side-order of Relevance and Allegory.

In the proverbial nutshell, The FirFlake: A Christmas Story is the story of Saint Nicholas himself (better known to those of us on the left side of the Atlantic as Santa Claus) and of the origins of his annual pilgrimage to the homes of each and every child in the world on Christmas Eve.

It is a children's fable and, maybe, below that a story about the telling of stories. But for me, if the surface tale doesn't hold my attention I have little interest in delving for the subtext.

And I'm afraid I'm not going to do so for The FirFlake ...

The truth is, I don't want to write this review.

There, I said it. I don't want to write it because I believe that Anthony R. Cardno is a nice man (we've interacted online) and, more, that this slim volume is a labour of love on his part. Worse, The Firflake is a self-published book and if I can't promote such efforts, I'd just as soon pass them over in silence. I doubt my opinion matters much to the likes of Gregory Maguire, but it might have some noticeable effect on smaller fish in the literary seas.

On the other hand, Mr. Cardno took the time and expense to send me his chapbook and so I feel duty-bound to take him at his word and treat his work seriously.

So. Let's talk about fairy tales, about Christmas stories and about why it's so hard to do them well.

Christmas: The Secret Origins

The Firflake: A Christmas Story
By Anthony R. Cardno
2008, 47 pages
# ISBN-10: 0595524680
# ISBN-13: 978-0595524686

I started my first long-hand draft of this review with the claim that "I don't do Christmas stories!" but on reflection realized it's not true. Tiny Tim doesn't move my icy heart, but It's a Wonderful Life certainly does, so I am not utterly immune to seasonal sentiment.

And if there's one thing The Firflake has in spades, it is Christmas sentiment. Unfortunately, sentiment alone does not a rich Christmas cake make.

The setting is an idealized far-northern homestead of indeterminate size and location, inhabited by a very large extended family of twee rural bumpkins, vaguely reminiscent of Hobbits in a tavern — they love to hear, and to tell, stories they have heard many times before.

Not necessarily any harm in that. Though Cardno doesn't use the phrase, it is quickly obvious we are being taken to the land of once-upon-a-time, a realm I am more than happy to visit now and again.

This trip, however ...

A clue to what is wrong with The Firflake is right there on the back cover of the edition in my possession, and on the author's website) as well.:

“But what if I’m looking near the field and the Firflake falls by the old stream?”

Engleberta Ruprecht is this year’s Watcher, and she takes her job seriously. The Watcher is tasked with waiting for the first snowflake of winter and leading Papa Knecht, the head of the family, to where the Firflake will fall. While the parents prepare for the special day, Papa Knecht and Mama Alvarie gather the grandchildren and tell stories.

They tell the legend of the Firflake, a story of cold northern plains and whipping winds.They also tell how Papa, when he was just a young man, went out to explore the wide world. How on a cold winter’s night in a small town, Papa was attacked by a group of young men, and then rescued by a tall stranger named Nicholas. And how Papa and Nicholas’ friendship became the foundation for the family’s long Christmas tradition.

A note on the illustrations

The Firflake's cover art is moody and almost horrific, maybe out of place for the kind of book it dresses, but it also feels old and mythical, which does work. The interior chapter-head drawings on the other hand ...

... are weirdly reminiscent of Charles M. Schultz, but (for once) that's not a good thing; Peanuts-style drawings have no business in a Christmas fable about the elves who work with Santa Claus. Especially when the elves look like caricatures of middle-American suburbanites.

The story is not Engleberta's and it is not really about the Firflake either. Cardno makes the initial mistake of pointlessly misleading his readers into believing that it is about both.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a framing device, but Engleberta's task never mattered to me and her intense devotion to it never convinced me. Fable or not, it is still the author's duty to convince their readers the land they are visiting is real.

With The Firflake, I never stopped hearing the writer's voice, as if Cardno himself didn't believe the story he was telling.

Such as it is, the real story here is Papa Knecht's, the bucolic clan's patriarch; Papa Knecht's, and that of a tall man called Nicholas, whose words open this essay and who rescued Papa from a vicious attack when he (Papa Knecht) was a young man (or "man") travelling the world.

As soon becomes clear, Papa Knecht and his people are not quite human. Small as young children, with a mysterious ability to "travel quicker" than we can, and longer-lived, the reader soon realizes they are elves, the "little people" of myth who mostly keep away from us big folk, all but a venturesome few.

A venturesome few like Papa Knecht, whose travels led to his unusual friendship with Nicholas and, after that, an even more unusual partnership with the tall, white-bearded man that is renewed every Christmas.

There really isn't much to say about the plot of this brief tale. Once the meeting between the two principals is recounted, the story unrolls with a ponderous inevitability. There is no dramatic tension to speak of for an experienced reader and, since the characters never rise from the page and the world in which we are told they exist is just as flat, there is nothing to hold our attention.

The Firflake is a tale written in a manner that lies uneasily in the gaps between ancient folk story-telling and modern fiction, never settling down as one or the other, nor succeeding as a successful hybrid.

While Cardno's intentions are noble, his execution simply doesn't work, at least not for me. Though I was willing, at no point was I able to suspend my disbelief and enter into the story. Instead, I felt I was reading the results of a novice who was trying too hard, both to be Entertaining and to be Meaningful.

In the introductory remarks to the nine(!)-page Acknowledgements, Cardno says he wanted to write a Christmas story he could eventually read to his nephew and niece; he says that he hopes he succeeded, and so do I, but I won't presume to pass judgement on what a child will like.

As a child, I loved The Secret Garden, but coming upon it recently as an adult I found it very nearly unreadable. So I can only say that The Firflake doesn't convince me or appeal to me now and I don't think it would have worked for me as a kid, either.

Next up: Catherynne M. Valente's Hugo Award-nominated Palimpsest.

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