Friday, December 13, 2013

Angels Among Us: Gifts of the Heart by Patricia Polacco

A very strange-looking woman was standing there at the door. The snowflakes swirled around her like a soft white cloak.

"The name's KAY LAMITY. I'm your new housekeeper!" she booms.

"You talk funny," said Richie. "Where you from?"

"YAZOO, Mississippi!"

"I know what your name means, don't you? Calamity?"

"I'll be shakin' things up a little around here!" Kay promised.

Richie and Trisha's grandmother has just died. Grampa is sad and gruff, their mom teaches long days at the school in town, the kids are facing their last Christmas on the farm, and things don't look too good.

But after Kay cooks up a storm of fried chicken and bread pudding "clean out of your gramma's recipe box," things look a bit better, and in the next few days the house is cleaned from stem to stern and the kids are well fed. Still, they miss Gramma.

"I ain't never lettin' her take Gramma's place. I never," said Richie.

"Boy I can stare down an armadillo while dancing on the back of a wild boar and tussling an alligator to the ground while whistling "Sweet Land of Dixie," said Kay.

Kay also claims to be the best checkers player south of the Mason-Dixon line, and she soon becomes Richie's favorite opponent. But Christmas without Gramma still has the kids in the dumps, so bad that when they go to town to see Santa Claus at the store, Richie is feeling mean enough to blurt out to little Trisha that he recognizes old man Barkovic under that ratty red hat and wispy beard.

"There really isn't a Santa!" Trisha admitted in tears.

There's no Gramma, no Santa Claus, and Trisha knows there's little money for gifts either. Kay Lamity tells her that there are store-bought gifts that are good enough and then there are gifts of the heart that are better, but even after making gifts for Mama and Grampa, Trisha is not consoled.

"Just because you don't see Santa Claus doesn't mean that he ain't there," Kay tells her.

And when Trisha wakes in the middle of the night to bells on the roof and Richie spots the runner tracks in the snow outside, they find both kinds of gifts right under their noses and right under their tree. The mysterious Kay Lamity is not your average angel, but in Patricia Polacco's Gifts of the Heart (G.P. Putnam's, 2013), she'll do. As Tomie DePaola's classic Merry Christmas, Strega Nona tells us, "Christmas has a magic of its own."  Polacco catches a bit of that magic in her poignant Depression-era Christmas story.

 Polacco's stories often include her alter ego Trish and her red-headed brother, Richie, and they appear here in a story of two lonely children whose spirits really need the magic of Christmas. As always, Polacco's signature style of illustrations, homespun, modest, but loving and lovely, gives this familiar story of the meaning of Christmas a unique flavor that warms the heart. As Kirkus points out, "'s Kay Lamity who stands out as the shining star of this touching, longer story. The story has humor, deeper meaning, and a mystery as to Kay Lamity's true identity.

For more of that magic (not the fairy dust kind, but the kind that comes from the human heart), see Polacco's other Christmas and Hanukkah stories, Christmas Tapestry, An  Orange for Frankie, The Trees of the Dancing Goats (Aladdin Picture Books), and Uncle Vova's Tree.



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