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Once Upon A Bookshelf

Where Fiction and Reality Meet

A Christmas Story

Author: Jean Shepherd
Collection Originally Published: 2003

A Christmas StoryI first saw the A Christmas Story when I was in the eighth grade. Not a Christmas has gone by since then that I haven’t watched it again – it’s one of my favourite holiday movies. A few years ago, I saw this book in Chapters, and immediately put it on my TBR list. However, it wasn’t until yesterday morning when I found it in my stocking that I actually got my little hands on it. I proceeded to spend what free time I had yesterday devouring it, and finished it first thing this morning.

Okay, so the cover of the book lies a little bit. It claims this is “the book that inspired the hilarious classic film.” The film was inspired by four essays in Shepherd’s book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which was originally published in 1966. This is a collection of those four essays and one additional one, The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds which was originally published in Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters (published in 1971).

The first essay, Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid, tells the story of Ralphie wanting the Red Ryder carbin-action range-model BB gun, while all of the grown-ups in his life (even Santa, the big man himself) tell him that, “you’ll shoot your eye out.” That doesn’t stop him from hoping for one, the disappointment when he realizes that he didn’t get it, and the great excitement when his dad points out one last unopened package hiding behind the curtains that is the just the right shape and size to be that anticipated Red Ryder BB gun.

The Counterfeit Secret Circle Member gets the Message, or The Asp Strikes Again is about the Little Orphan Annie radio show. After each show, there would be a secret message that could only be decoded with the secret decoder pin, which you could only get if you sent in an Ovaltine silver inner seal. Ralphie stumbles upon an Ovaltine can one day with the silver inner seal still intact, so sends it in and waits impatiently to get the decoder pin and membership to the secret circle. When he finally receives it and starts decoding his first secret message, it is with huge disappointment that he realizes that the secret message is nothing more than an advertisement for Ovaltine.

The essay My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop Art tells the story of that infamous leg lamp that Ralphie’s father wins in a newspaper contest. The lamp quickly became a point on contention between Ralphie’s parents, as well as a local landmark in the neighbourhood, culminating in an accident where the lamp accidentally gets broken.

In Grover Dill and the Tasmanian Devil, Ralphie finally reaches his breaking point towards the local bully. Instead of letting Dill push him around, Ralphie fights back – something that shocks him, his friends, his family and the bully. By the time Ralphie’s mom pulls him off Dill, the weight of what he’s done hits Ralphie, and he is in terror of what will happen when his dad gets home from work and hears about what Ralphie’s done and, more importantly, what language came out of Ralphie’s mouth.

The last essay in the book, The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds, doesn’t take place during the winter or around Christmastime like the rest of the essays. This one actually takes place over Easter weekend, but was changed and adapted for the movie. Seeing as it takes place during the Great Depression, buying a ham uses up half of Ralphie’s dad’s paycheck – as this doesn’t happen more than once a year, Ralphie’s dad always looks really forward to it. Instead of the the next door neighbour’s dogs getting the Christmas turkey, those dogs end up running off with the Easter ham.

I’m so happy that I finally got the chance to read this book – it was fabulous! I don’t know if I’ll read more of Shepherd’s stuff, but it was certainly highly enjoyable. The voice of the narration is what makes this book so great – of course, it is the same narrational tone as in the movie (obviously, since Shepherd wrote the essays the movie is based on, and adapted them for the movie, etc.). Loved it!

This may sound strange to some people, but… If I had not known better, if the names of places were never mentioned, I would have automatically thought this was a Canadian book. The humour is so very close to Canadian humour – so much more dry than your typical American humour. It was strange, and yet a very pleasant surprise.

I think I’ve read more Christmas books this year than normal – three that I’ve reviewed here, and then my traditional readings of other favourite Christmas short stories. A lot of fun – need to keep my eyes open for ones to read next year. :)

Posted by Courtney Wilson @ 3:25 pm December 26, 2008.
Category: Short Stories
Book Author(s):
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  • Eugene B. Bergmann

    I much enjoyed your description of A CHRISTMAS STORY, and your enthusiasm for it. I do wonder why you refer to Shepherd’s short stories (fiction that they are) as “essays.”

    He first told those stories and many more, plus giving commentaries, observations on the innumerable foibles of mankind, etc. on his decades-long time on radio–twenty-one years on New York City’s WOR. Among the other things he did: he was a master on the kazoo, the jew’s harp, and the nose flute, as well as thumping out tunes by knocking his knuckles on his head. He also did much other creative work in television, film, writing, performance, etc. See the main Shepherd website:, and see my book, EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD.

  • Court

    Eugene – I’ve referred to them as essays as the publishers note calls them all autobiographical essays in the beginning of the book.