A Burglar’s Christmas {Book Club}

Hi Book Clubbers!

Today we are going to discuss Willa Cather’s A Burglar’s Christmas. It’s a short story you can read by merely clicking on the link. No book to buy, no huge time commitment. But you might want to read the story before jumping in to the discussion.

I’ve done some research on Willa Cather and this story, so will talk about what I’ve learned for a paragraph or two so your eyes won’t inadvertently read about the plot :).

I have to admit I don’t know much about Willa Cather except that when I moved abroad and started teaching English my students wondered what I thought of My Antonia and I lost MAJOR FACE when I admitted I’d never read or (awkward moment) really even heard of Willa Cather. Hey, people I wasn’t an English major! I studied Social Studies and Math and just did the minimum for my English requirements. It was living abroad pre-internet and social media that turned me into a “real” (whatever that means!) reader.

So, here’s a bit about Willa as a person (my eyes glazed over when I read about literary themes):

In 1896, Cather moved to Pittsburgh after being hired to write for the Home Monthlya women’s magazine patterned after the successful Ladies’ Home Journal. A year later, she became a telegraph editor and drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader and frequently contributed poetry and short fiction to The Library, another local publication. In Pittsburgh, she taught Latin, algebra, and English composition at Central High School for one year; she then taught English and Latin at Allegheny High School, where she became the head of the English department.

(I took a lot out here)

“Through the 1910s and 1920s, Cather was firmly established as a major American writer, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for her novel One of Ours. By the 1930s, however, critics began to dismiss her as a ‘romantic, nostalgic writer who could not cope with the present.’ Critics charged Cather with failing to confront ‘contemporary life as it is’ and escaping into an idealized past. During the hardships of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, her work was seen as lacking social relevance.”

Today’s story, A Burglar’s Christmas was first published near the beginning of her writing career in Home Monthly in 1896 under the pseudonym of Elizabeth L. Seymour, her cousin’s name.

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Okay, about to start discussing the story . . . don’t read further if you don’t want to read any spoiler alerts.

First of all, I totally missed it the first time through, but the main character’s name is William and the author is Willa. Hello?! And then I found online: “It has been argued by critic Sharon O’Brien that this rewriting of the prodigal son theme bears some resemblance to Willa Cather’s own relationship with her mother.”

I was a little pleased with myself that I had noticed the prodigal son themes! But we’ll get to that.

I loved this line: “He was miserable enough to want to be quite alone. Even the crowd that jostled by him annoyed him. He wanted to think about himself. He had avoided this final reckoning with himself for a year now. He had laughed it off and drunk it off. But now, when all those artificial devices which are employed to turn our thoughts into other channels and shield us from ourselves had failed him, it must come. Hunger is a powerful incentive to introspection.”

This year, how are you doing with the reckoning with yourself? There are many artificial devices we can use to shield us from ourselves, but at some point, they fail.

I could picture William trying to run away from himself. I thought it was interesting he spent much of the first part of the story mentioning food—we can relate, can’t we? How many gatherings of M’s somehow end up talking about food! The younger son in Luke’s parable also hit his breaking point with food, thinking of it as he cared for the pigs.

In the Prodigal Son, the younger son intentionally chooses to go home and throws himself on the mercy of the father and was willing to be a servant. In A Burglar’s Christmas, though the son may have hit bottom, he didn’t go looking for his parents. Instead he stumbled on them and actually robbed them (shall we say, robbed them again! He’d already robbed them of a relationship with him.).

But the mother, like the father in the parable, had been on the look out. She didn’t care what had happened, she just was happy to see her son. (Made me wonder what Willa Cather and her mother’s relationship was like!).

I’ve just looked at the length and this is getting long, so let’s continue talking about this in the comments. What lines or phrases stood out to you? Is there anyone in your life that you’re on the look out for and hope they return to you? How did this story being similar to the well-known parable make you see both differently (this story and the parable)? What other thoughts or questions do you have?

See you in the comments! And next week’s story is listed below :),

Amy

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For a change of pace, and because December can be full, we’re going to read four short stories you can get online. No need to read ahead, you can read the day of the post. I’ve been surprised by what delightful Christmas Short Stories exist (I don’t tend to be a short story person) and want to read them with you! If you want to read ahead, here’s the plan:

December 1A Burglar’s Christmas by Willa Cather
December 8: A College Santa Cluase by Ralph Henry Barbour
December 15: How the Captain Made Christmas by Thomas Nelson Page
December 22: The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke

17 Comments

  1. Melissa Toews November 30, 2015

    Great idea to do short stories this month! I was intrigued by the exchange between mother & father in the hallway. What was she alluding to? How had he failed William in the past?

    1. Amy Young December 1, 2015

      Good question, Melissa, I’m not sure (duh, of course I’m not!). I find that an interesting twist on the prodigal son — where in that case the father had done nothing “wrong.” And in the prodigal son, of course there was no mother mentioned. But here, it makes sense there is a mother and a father. I wonder if it was something the father had said? I find it interesting (and encouraging) he did what the mother asked him to … he did go in and try and make it right.

    2. Anna December 1, 2015

      I wondered if that was just the father feeling guilty because his son didn’t turn out well.  We all know how hard it is when things happen outside our control not to think, “If only I had done this differently…”  or similar.  Or maybe there really was something to reproach himself with.  Interesting to think about.

  2. Deb Smith December 1, 2015

    I loved this sentiment from the mother – “Love has nothing to do with pardon or forgiveness. It only loves and loves and loves.”

    1. Amy Young December 1, 2015

      Oh man, that is rich right there, isn’t it?!!

    2. Anna December 1, 2015

      The part you quoted was what popped out to me right away.  That’s how love should be. 🙂

    3. Danielle Wheeler December 1, 2015

      Yes!  That’s the line I love too!  Wow… that’s one to soak in.

  3. Jennyq December 1, 2015

    What a sweet little short story!  I’m mulling over your question, Amy, about how am I doing with reckoning with myself, and feel like this is an area in which I need someone in my life to call me on avoiding it when I am.  Sometimes part of me senses that and seeks an answer, sometimes part of me senses that and keeps avoiding, and sometimes I don’t realize I am.  I can recognize this in others so much more easily than in myself.

    From the story, I really connected with Willie’s reluctant response to his mother’s affectionate love and complete approval with an ‘if you only knew what I had done/been.’  I feel awkward about receiving love if the giver doesn’t know my darkness.  It feels fake to me.  If the giver knows my darkness and still chooses love, it’s easier for me to receive it because I feel like it is authentic and not based on pretense.

    1. Amy Young December 1, 2015

      Jenny, you raise an interesting point on when we know what we’ve done and others might not (or do know). I don’t think everyone needs to know about everything (and I don’t think that’s what you’re saying), but I understand what you mean about wondering if people really love me. I’ve recently had an experience in my life where people might think my responses are out of proportion to the event (as in I’m reacting more strongly than makes sense). Today I had to remove part of the acknowledgments of my book because of this situation and was having my sister proof read the acknowledgments and said I’d have to re-do the last paragraph. When she read the original version, she said, “Oh, now I get why this situation is so hard, You really have lost a lot.” Okay, I feel I’ve turned this into being about me and I’m sorry for that :)! But somehow this all connected when I started and I’m just going to trust it makes sense and leave it!

      1. Jennyq December 2, 2015

        Yes,  you made sense 🙂 and I’m glad to know I’m not alone in feeling like this.

  4. Anna December 1, 2015

    I picked up on the prodigal theme, too, but I liked this twist on it.  The prodigal wasn’t even considering returning, but the mom had been watching and hoping for him.  He underestimated his value to her and to his father.  And it was interesting how the mom understood and forgave partly because she had similar battles of her own.  I think that those who can really understand receiving forgiveness can offer it more easily.  I have a theory that the Christians who are the most likely to be judgmental are the ones who are still trying to earn God’s love on some level.  We can be like the parable of the man who was forgiven by the king, but then had his friend thrown in prison for a smaller offense.  But the mom was coming from a place of brokenness and redemption herself, which helped her to forgive her son with no strings attached.

    1. Amy Young December 1, 2015

      Anna, I think you’re right! I loved too that he underestimated his value and he wasn’t even look for restoration but his mom never stopped looking for him. And the importance of TRULY getting that we don’t have to earn God’s love! What freedom when that truly sinks in 🙂

  5. Anna December 1, 2015

    The other thing that was interesting was the prodigal’s contrasting his empty pleasures during his time away from home.  He realized how pointless and unfulfilling they are.  I may be reading too much into it, but it seems like our life without God contrasted to true joy and fellowship with him.

  6. Michele Womble December 2, 2015

    I especially loved that he decided to become a thief, and rob a house – and it turns out he’s robbing his own house, his own family – who(m), as Amy pointed out, he had already robbed of their relationship with him.  There’s something profound in  it turning out that he was robbing his own house -because that’s what he’d really been doing all along –  and also  in the fact that his wrong decision brought him right back…home.  (He could have rejected the love, forgiveness offered him there (and I was so afraid that he would!) but he didn’t…)but I think there’s something deep there, that even our wrong decisions bring us face to face with God – bring us right back to where we started…IF we will accept that – and that we will find that it was really God we were wronging (robbing) all along….

     

    I really loved these words of his mother: “Listen: Between you and me there can be no secrets….we are of one blood. I have lived all your life before you. You have never had an impulse that I have not known, you have never touched a brink that my feet have not trod. This is your birthday night. Twenty-four years ago I foresaw all this.”  Doesn’t this all sound vaguely (or not so vaguely) familiar?!!!)  blood that we share in and are covered with, a (sinless) life lived so that we might be hidden in it – in Him, a high priest who has been tempted in every way, just as we are…” and Ps. 139…..
    and: Tonight you have come back to me, just as you always did after you ran away to swim in the river that was forbidden you, the river you loved because it was forbidden….I never asked you where you had been then, nor will I now. You have come back to me, that’s all in all to me. I know your every possibility and limitation, as a composer knows his instrument.”

    She never asked where he had been because, as she just said, she already knew – and what’s important is – he came back.  Definitely a picture of the Father and the prodigal son.

    I wonder if the dad in the story is sort of like the law – (or truth?), and if she’s like grace. I don’t get the feeling that the dad is “bad” – or even that he’s done anything wrong,  but whatever he represents by itself wasn’t enough to keep the son from the life he chose… “failed” – but  combined with grace…

    And the ending is beautiful.

    “The old life, with all its bitterness and useless antagonism and flimsy sophistries, its brief delights that were always tinged with fear and distrust and unfaith, that whole miserable, futile, swindled world of Bohemia seemed immeasurably distant and far away, like a dream that is over and done”

    I almost pasted the whole paragraph here, but I’m trying to practice restraint.  🙂

    I loved this story.  Thank you, Amy!
     

  7. T December 2, 2015

    Yeah, I think that the dad felt like he’d failed since his son didn’t turn out “right”.  I think that is probably really common.  So interesting to see, though, that he did still carry values that they’d taught him–taking off his hat, not stooping to theft before, etc.  And the mom didn’t hurry and get him new clothes or send him to shower.  She just wanted to be with him as is.  I hope that he went to find his friend a day or two later, and brought him home to start a new life over, as well.  Happy Lent, everyone!

     

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