It takes a certain kind of courage to retell a classic holiday tale, especially one by a master such as Hans Christian Andersen. Modern storyteller Gregory Maguire has a special ability to comprehend the life and emotions of someone whose life has been wind-whipped by challenge -- and to share that person's story with subtle power and sympathy.
Clever puns and wordplay are among the most noticeable elements of the half-dozen Wicked stories that have vaulted Maguire to international notice. This time out, Maguire mutes his voice in the short Christmas story he crafted at the request of National Public Radio. Using simple words and phrases, he reworks Andersen's "The Little Match Girl," making the story line a bit gentler for 21st-century ears and yet preserving the simple spareness of Andersen's message.
I found myself rereading "Matchless" and finding nuances that weren't obvious the first time through, even though the writing is clear and comprehensible. Without spoiling any aspect of the story for you, although the story is brief, it's not superficial. It includes a section that can be interpreted literally or allegorically.
Maguire wrote this to be read aloud -- indeed, its first appearance was on Christmas Day, 2008, as he read it on the NPR air waves, and its rhythm, cadence and pace all are well-suited for the spoken voice. The line art that Maguire drew to accompany his words has an unpolished charm of its own, which adds to the keepsake nature of this little volume, but the tale is most powerful when read aloud.
One of our family traditions is for me to read Francis Pharcellus Church's "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" to our children, even though they're teenagers and well past the age where they could read to themselves. I'm thinking that adding "Matchless" to this tradition can only enrich it.