Holiday story offers escape

Novel | The Christmas Pearl, By Dorothea Benton Frank, William Morrow, $14.95, 176 pages

A family fight on the first day of this year inspired Dorothea Benton Frank to write her nostalgic tale, "The Christmas Pearl."

Her husband's family was gathered at her home for yet another holiday meal, she recalled in a recent phone interview.

"It was about 10 at night," she said. "There was no one to help in the kitchen, and everybody was a little overserved."

A fight breaks out.

"When it was all over, I thought, 'How many families, over the holidays, work themselves into this lather and have these stupid fights?' We have so much and then we pick on these stupid little things.

"Since then, we've all laughed about this."

A similar family fight over a holiday dinner found its way into "The Christmas Pearl."

The story is narrated by Theodora Bryson, 93, who has fond memories of her childhood Christmases and is disappointed by what it has become for her children and grandchildren: "For the life of me, I just can't feel their excitement. Their Christmas plans seem to have become little more than a burden and a bother. Everything is rush, rush, rush!

"In the holiday seasons of my youth, back in the early twentieth century, my brother and I believed anything, anything at all, was possible. Christmas was charmed."

Making sure the fruitcakes were baked, the house was adorned with yards of homemade garland, and that treasured decorations were displayed year after year was Pearl, her grandmother's housekeeper and much more. "... Pearl was the engine that made every good thing happen to us and for us."

But now Theodora's parents, grandparents and Pearl are gone. Her daughter's family lives with her in her old Charleston home, but things just seem wrong this Christmas. What she really needs to set things straight is someone exactly like Pearl. Through some holiday magic, Theodora manages to show her family what the season is all about.

Frank's real-life inspiration for Pearl was Ella Wright, the black woman who held her family together when she was a child. Frank said her father came home from World War II to a wife and four young children as well as her mother's parents, who lived with the family and were elderly and ill.

Her father was a troubled man "I think it would be fair to say he was abusive" and her mother was just overwhelmed by all her responsibilities.

"Ella was always the one who was the glue," she said. "When Ella was in the house, things were great. When Ella went home, who knew?"

"The Christmas Pearl" is a sweet an d often funny story that would be an ideal diversion for a quiet holiday afternoon. Frank's voice as Theodora is perfect; the reader really will feel as if a 93-year-old woman is telling this tale.

The book includes some vintage photos of Charleston winter scenes, as well as an adorable one on the back of the book jacket that shows a 5-year-old Frank, holding hands with her cousin Jim Blanchard, also 5, in front of a decorated tree placed in front of the Christmas drapes poinsettias everywhere of Frank's childhood home.

Much of the book has to do with tables loaded with fabulous Southern meals, and a section in the back includes Frank's mother's favorite holiday recipes.

"My thought was, if you're a grandmom, you could buy this book, and take it to your daughter's house and read it to your grandchildren and then go make the sands a cookie with them."

Traditions are important for the holidays, Frank said.

"I hate this 'Let's go to the mall and buy Christmas.' "

"The Christmas Pearl" offers an escape from the "rush, rush, rush."