Monday, December 12, 2011

The Power of a Gift: The Carpenter's Gift: The First Rockefeller Center Tree by David Rubel

Nearly a lifetime had passed, but Henry could still remember what it felt like to wake up in the old shack, especially during wintertime.

It is 1931, and the Great Depression has settled on the land, and in a drafty little frame house in the country just outside New York City, there is little work for his parents and little to spend for coal for the stove or food for the family. To try to earn some money, Henry and his father cut some evergreens and drive to Manhattan, hoping to sell some as Christmas trees.

Downtown, they set up their small lot near a group of construction workers preparing the site for the future Rockefeller Center. The workers are friendly, sharing their lunches and small bonfire with the two, and when Henry's father has sold all but one of his trees, he gives the last one to the workers, who stay after work hours to fashion decorations for their little tree from scraps of materials left around the site, cans, bits of twisted metal, and paper scraps.

Henry helps by making a star from a folded piece of newspaper, and when he sees the strangely beautiful Christmas tree, he wishes on that star for a snug, safe home:

"If ever there was a magical moment," Henry thought,"this is it."

And in true Christmas story form, there is a small miracle, as the workmen return the gift by showing up at Henry's dilapidated shack and in their off-hours build with scraps from their job a small but sturdy house for his family. When the job is completed, Frank, a carpenter, gives Henry his hammer as a Christmas gift. "Here, Sparky," he says, "you'll need this."

Those gifts, a home and a hammer, are the key to Henry's future. He himself becomes a carpenter and builds a secure career for himself with that hammer and his own hard work. And by chance, when he is an old man, he gets to return the gift, giving a magnificent evergreen found on his own property as the chosen tree to be the Rockefeller Center tree. Learning that the wood from his tree will be passed on to build the home for a Habitat family, Henry gives a seed cone from the tree and the treasured hammer to the daughter of the family who will help build and live in the house to be constructed for them.

"Here you go, Sparky," Henry said, "you'll need this."

David Rubel's The Carpenter's Gift: A Christmas Tale about the Rockefeller Center Tree (Random House, 2011), lighted by Jim LaMarche's luminous illustrations, is the heartwarming affirmation of joy that each Christmas season needs. Like Newberry author Kate DiCamillo's and Bagram Iboutalline's Great Joy (midi edition) or P.J. Lynch's beautifully illustrated version of O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi this is that book for this season. Horn Book's reviewer gets it right: "Rubel’s story of compassion hits all the right holiday notes; LaMarche’s lush, warm illustrations of glowing Christmas trees and smiling, caring characters drive home the central message of charity."

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