Susan Wojciechowski,
illustrated by P.J. Lynch,
The Christmas Miracle
of Jonathan Toomey

(Candlewick, 1995)

Susan Wojciechowski uses the setting of a Western frontier village for her Christmas story about the miraculous and transformational power of love.

His name is Jonathan Toomey, but the children of the village call him Mr. Gloomy. He seldom smiles and never laughs as he walks hunched over, mumbling and grumbling to himself. Most of his time he spends at his workbench, carving wood, for Jonathan Toomey is said to be the best woodcarver in the village. After a long day of carving, he spends his evenings smoking his pipe and staring into the fire.

The reason for Jonathan's gloom and mood is known only to himself: before moving to the valley, he had another life and a wife and baby, both of whom died. Unable to stay in the same place after that, he packed his belongings and "traveled till his tears stopped" to live in a small house at the edge of the village.

One day, his work is interrupted by a knock at the door. It is the widow McDowell and her 7-year-old son Thomas, newcomers to the village. She explains that the Christmas creche, which she has had since she was a girl, was lost in the move, and that she hopes that Jonathan could carve a new one.

Jonathan takes the job, refusing to promise them by Christmas. "Christmas is pish-posh," he says, and shuts the door to set to work. But a few days later, the widow and Thomas are back: Thomas wants to be a woodcarver, and he wants to watch Jonathan work. During the visit and subsequent visits, Jonathan experiences the miraculous transformation.

Wojciechowski develops Jonathan's progress back to fully living subtly and carefully through small and convincing details. There is a gentle rolling rhythm to her precise language and the structure of the story, and she uses images repeatedly to punctuate the story: church bells, wood shavings, the click of the widow's knitting needles. Wojciechowski depicts Jonathan's loneliness and despair as running close to the surface, evoking genuine emotions and responses. Thomas' cheery frankness grounds the book, keeping it from being sentimental, but I defy anyone to read it -- especially aloud -- and remain unmoved.

P.J. Lynch's gorgeous paintings capture and extend the story perfectly. He uses warm earthy colors, suggesting, of course, the beauty of natural wood, but the characters are anything but wooden. Jonathan particularly springs to life, and the range of expression on his face and in his body as the boy and his mother slowly win him over is remarkable. Lynch includes the tiniest details in the meticulously executed paintings as well as an instinctive awareness of space and light and perspective. His artistic choices never fail.

Wojciechowski won the Pennsylvania Library Association's Carolyn W. Field Medal and Lynch won the Kate Greenaway Medal (the British equivalent of the Caldecott Medal) for The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. The awards are certainly more than well-deserved, and the result is a book which is a worthy addition to the pantheon of Christmas classics.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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