Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Review - Zanna's Gift: A Life in Christmases by Orson Scott Card

Short review: A cloying tale of a little girl's Christmas gift to her deceased older brother and how the whole family faces life with a tear-stained smile.

When Ernest dies young
Zanna lives on in Christmases
With sugar sweetness

Full review: Zanna's Gift written by Orson Scott Card, was originally marketed under the name Scott Richards, a pseudonym used (as far as I can tell) for this one work, and then dropped "because the marketing strategy didn't work". I suspect that it was actually dropped because without Card's name attached to it, the book wouldn't sell. This is idle speculation on my part, because I don't have the actual sales figures, but on its own Zanna's Gift simply doesn't seem be able to stand up under the weight of its own cloying piles of sentimentality.

The book tells a heartwarming tale of a family's struggles through adversity. Ernest, the oldest son, is a paragon of a boy, responsible, handsome, smart, industrious, and most importantly (for the story) kind to his four year old sister Suzanna (or 'Zanna for short) and the only person who can decipher her intricate doodles. Just before Christmas one year he simply dies, leaving his parents, two brothers, and most of all his sister devastated by the loss. The gift identified in the title is a picture drawn by Zanna to be a Christmas present for Ernie that she started before his untimely death. She decides to give him the gift anyway, explaining that she will keep the picture and memorize it so when she joins him in the future, she can describe it to him.

From beyond the grave Ernie miraculously reveals that Zanna had a twin sister who died at Zanna's birth, Ernie's younger brother takes up where Ernie left off, working the same job, saving money to go to college and so on. Every year at Christmas the family pulls out Ernie's picture and sets it on the mantle. The children grow up, get married, have their own children, face adversity, overcome it with unyielding faith in God and tear-stained smiles, and the saccharine goodness heaps the reader with every turn of the page.

Zanna, of course, remains the focal character. She grows up, gets married and has her own children. The one "bad" character in the book, her mischievous nephew gets her children in trouble, which results in a life lesson for her and her children. She studies art, and eventually paints a picture of her defiant niece throwing a rock while standing on a fence post, even though she has been hobbled by her disease. After hiding the painting for years for fear of making her niece feel bad, she finally gives it to her only to find that she is overjoyed, as even though her body has been ravaged by disease, her plucky spirit has not been broken. Once again, the family triumphs over adversity, blinking back the tears to reaffirm their faith in God and one another.

Zanna's career as a painter also gives Card a soapbox to make some of his usual statements about what he considers to be the deplorable nature of modern art, which I suppose he considers a bonus, but I found a bit out of place (not to mention tiresome). Oddly, despite the fact that her art as a child was so unusual that it helped create a special bond between herself and her older brother because, even though it was supposed to be representational, it was so imaginative and almost abstract in a way that required Ernie to decipher it, Card makes sure the reader knows that Zanna as a grown up artist simply doesn't do that sort of silly abstract art. She's a painter who paints real looking pictures of things, which is how it ought to be and don't you forget it.

It is the constant piling on of awful happenings: Young death, nasty personalities, polio, and so on that make the book feel like it is simply trying too hard. Even the nastier personalities are pretty muted in this book (the mischievous nephew is about as bad as any character gets). Most of the family members are idealized versions of actual humans, always able to find the good side to their sadness. And since the characters aren't really actual characters, but rather props to allow the author to pass on life lessons to the reader, once they are no longer needed, they drop right out of the story, many never to be mentioned again.

It is the spunky way that the various family members fight through their disappointment and come through almost never uttering an unkind word to one another or despairing of their situation that makes the story so sweet that it leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. If the sentiment had been dialed back to about 90% of the level in the story, I think the book would have been much improved. As it is, the giant lump of sugar just proved too much to swallow comfortably.

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