The Christmas Letters by Lee Smith

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The Christmas Letters

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Using the epistolary genre to tell her story, Lee Smith creates a narrative of three generations of Christmas letter-writers, each telling her own story through holiday letters as well as chronicling the history of the family. Birdie Pickett, her daughter Mary, and her granddaughter Melanie assume the dual role of letter writers and storytellers, interspersing recipes throughout their correspondence.

Birdie initiates this history with her letter of December, 1944, in which she explains how she is with her new baby Mary while her husband Bill is in the Pacific, fighting World War II, leaving his wife and baby in his parents’ care. That theme of care—and who is caring for whom—permeates all three sets of letters.

Mary’s letters begin where her mother’s stop—in December, 1967. In a period spanning almost thirty years, she tells of the tensions of Vietnam, life in suburbia, and various other hallmarks of contemporary American life. In her penultimate letter, she notes that she has written out her life story in recipes: “The Cool Whip and mushroom soup years, the hibachi and fondu period, then the quiche and crepes phase, and now it’s these salsa years.”

Melanie’s letter is short and concise—a startling contrast to her grandmother’s rambling, almost Victorian, correspondence. Yet it contains the same message as her foremothers’ letters, best summarized by Birdie’s observation: “Families! You wonder how any of us survive them, don’t you? But we do.”