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Saturday, December 22, 2012

'Cause Nothing Says Christmas Better Than a Toy Soldier Slaughtering Mice in Front of a Little Girl ...

I've never understood why other December babies complain about celebrating a birthday at Christmastime.  I never have because I love this time of year.  Having been born a few days before Christmas, a time when, all over the world, people are focusing on joy and love, only makes turning another year older more special.  Plus, I arrived on my dad's birthday, in the middle of a swirling snowstorm, without the help of the doctor (whose car couldn't make it up the steep hill to the hospital)—it all makes for a pretty good story, if I do say so myself!

Another great thing about my Christmastime birthday is the traditions surrounding it.  I can't remember how old I had just turned (11, maybe?), but one year, my mom gave me a wonderful gift—she took me to see a professional production of The Nutcracker in Portland, Oregon.  I still remember how sophisticated I felt sitting in a plush theater seat, watching the ballet.  The magic of the performance just carried me away.  To commemorate the occasion, I was given my very first nutcracker (seen above).  My parents didn't have the money to take me to the ballet every year, but they did give me a nutcracker on all subsequent birthdays.  Still do, in fact.  And I carry on the tradition started by my mom by seeing The Nutcracker each December with my husband, my daughters, my sons, or whoever else will go with me.  It simply wouldn't feel like Christmas if I didn't—at the very least—place my collection of nutcrackers around my house.  They remind me of my childhood, my family, and all the happy memories I associate with both.  

Many people love The Nutcracker; now you know why I do, too :)

Considering my love for all things Nutcracker, I was thrilled when the folks at Crown Publishing Group offered me a new book on just this subject.  I knew it would be a perfect Christmas read for me.  And it was.  Sort of.  I had never thought much about where the story behind the ballet came from, but it was inspired by a "long short story" written by a German man named E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816.  A director of the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg adapted the story (using a French version written by Alexandre Dumas) for the stage in 1891.  Tchaikovsky then wrote the famous score.  The result is a narrative that bears little resemblance to Hoffman's original tale.  The aim of this new book, then, is to give modern readers the real story, the authentic story, the story that Hoffman gifted to the world, never knowing that, one day, it would be the inspiration for a beloved ballet known as The Nutcracker

If you ever thought the story of little Clara receiving a nutcracker from her creepy godfather was a little, well, strange, you're going to think it doubly so after reading Hoffman's version.  Because, let's face it—the story's a bit odd.  Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim (now deceased) and illustrated by the late Maurice Sendak (who also designed costumes and sets for the Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of The Nutcracker), the story told in Nutcracker goes a little something like this:  Seven-year-old Marie Stahlbaum (her doll is the one named Clara) and her siblings receive Christmas gifts from their godfather, a celebrated clockmaker who crafts elaborate toys for them every year.  Because these creations are so fragile, they're locked away in a glass cabinet so that the children cannot break them.  So, while the children are amazed by this year's offering—a magnificent castle with figures that walk and dance—they quickly lose interest, knowing it to be another look-don't-touch kind of present.  Then, Marie notices another of Drosselmeier's gifts—a nutcracker.  She loves the "droll little man" the moment she sees him and vows to care for him always.  Unwilling to leave him, Marie settles near the toy cabinet instead of going to bed as she's been told to do.  As the clock strikes midnight, the girl begins to hear noises.  First, she hears shuffling, giggling and squeaking.  Mice pour into the room, squeezing through every hole in the woodwork.  A battle between the hideous rodents and an army of toy soldiers, led by Marie's nutcracker, ensues.  

When Marie wakes up the next morning, she's sure she dreamed the whole thing.  Then, Godfather Drosselmeier tells her a tale about a beautiful princess, a cursed prince and the mouse monster who vows to bring them down.  Now she knows the truth: the battle wasn't a dream.  Or was it?

I'll tell you the truth right off:  I wasn't as charmed by Hoffman's story as I wanted to be.  It's unique to be sure, but it also struck me as ... well ... weird.  The stage version makes more sense to me.  Still, Sendak's illustrations lend the original version a whimsical air, even when the tale turns dark, as if often does.  I don't see kids actually reading this one, as it's not just scary, but also confusing.  I do, however, think Sendak's artwork will fascinate them with its bright, dreamlike interpretations of the text.  

So, overall, what did I think of Nutcracker?  Meh.  Even though I enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at the story, I think I'll stick with the stage version.  To me, it's less confusing and more entertaining.  'Cause, you know, nothing says Christmas better than a soldier slaughtering a bunch of mice in front of a little girl and then taking her on a trip through a magical Wonderland, all of which turns out to be nothing more than a magical dream.  Well, it does to me, anyway.     

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't think of anything.  Can you?)

Grade:  C

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG for violence and scary images

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Nutcracker from the generous folks at Crown Publishing Group.  Thank you!  


  1. Loved your review! Made me laugh-- because you are right. It's weird. I've never seen the stage version, so when I read this I was kind of shocked. Not really the heartwarming Christmas story I was expecting. But I liked the magical aspect, and the illustrations are great. Happy Holidays!

  2. Hahaha! I'm going to pass on this one. :) And my birthday is 12/12, so I have Christmas traditions associated with my bday too. Like when I was a kid, my mom and I would go cut our Christmas tree on my birthday. I've never minded the birthday so close to Christmas really...but gettin married a week after was dumb, because we never have any money to go anywhere after buying all the gifts! Have a merry Christmas and a happy birthday!!!


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