Monday, December 17, 2007

An Education About Christmas and Canada All in One Book

A Northern Nativity by William Kurelek is both a second-hand score and a Christmas title, but I'd buy it new if I came across it. This book, now over 30 years old, is another great addition to a collection of Christmas books by Canadians. In our home we celebrate Christmas in a fairly secular way. While I try to explain to my kids the various celebrations during this, the dark season, my kids are not particularly well-versed in religion. That's a shame I think, not because I'll ever be much of a church-goer, but more that so much of our history, literature, customs, etc. are so thoroughly grounded in Christianity. I think my kids, in fact most kids today (and me too) are missing out on a lot of depth behind what we, and others, do and why we do it. But I digress, sort of. This is all a lead in to saying that there's a lot of think about in this book of Kurelek's.

In A Northern Nativity Kurelek writes and paints his way through dreams of the twelve-year-old William as he imagines the nativity scene in various parts of Canada. He wonders:

If it happened here as it happened there...
If it happened now as it happened then...

Who would have seen the miracle?
Who would have brought gifts?
Who would have taken Them in?

With this premise, the book begins. Each spread shows the nativity in a 20 different settings -- an igloo in northern Canada, a hay shed on a ranch in the foothills of the Rockies, a box car, at Niagara Falls, and even in a broken down car beside the slag heaps of a mining town. It's such an interesting idea and certainly you'll never come across another book like it. And it contains lots of food for thought. In a spread entitled, A Farm Family's Adoration, the Madonna with child sit in front of a Christmas tree, before a farm family. At the end of the spread he writes:

"As William woke he recalled that the Christmas tree had stood not before but behind the Holy Family. He remembered a poem he had heard:
Lead us aaway from the Christmas tree,
Lead us back to the Christmas cave.
If we have gifts to give
Teach us to give to the hungry, the poor, the sick, the lame."

In many of the spreads Kurelek has such sentiments and "teachings" getting at the heart of what Christmas is really meant to be about. This is not really a picture book for young children, but it would certainly be a wonderful book to read (and discuss) with older children.

It was hard to find reviews, but here's one from Book Loons, and here's what Judith Saltman has to say about this book in Modern Canadian Children's Books (Note: "Modern" is relative here as this book was published in 1987.):

"In A Northern Nativity (1976) Kurelek moves from memoir to dream and legend. He sets one of the most resonant of narratives, the nativity, against the kaleidoscope of Canadian scenes. Based on a series of childhood dreams, the paintings place the nativity in the time of Kurelek's own childhood memories and relocate it in a cinematic journey across Canada. The holy family, depicted as representing all Canadians from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to Ottawa, appears in many changing cultural identities, including Inuit, black, and Indian."

You can see some of the interior images here.

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