Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Tom Hanks Gift

Review by Bill Doughty

Actor, writer, patriot Tom Hanks speaks with a Purple Heart recipient veteran.
Tom Hanks, writer, builds short stories the way he describes building a fire in "Christmas Eve 1953," a gem of a story in "Uncommon Type: Some Stories" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) – to breathe, brighten and be warm. There's a reason why warmth, like hope and resilience, is important in this story.

Hanks's character Virgil Beuell entrusts his son, Davey, to operate the family's fireplace:
"A fire is going in the family room. He had taught Davey how to build one by stacking the wood the way he did his toy Lincoln Logs, like a square house around the kindling, never a pyramid. The kid now viewed making the fire as his sacred duty. Come the first frosts of November, the Beuell home was the warmest place for miles and miles."
U.S. soldiers fight in Belgium, Nov. 4, 1944. (National Archives)
As a Navy read, I found "Christmas Eve 1953" most poignant: Army combat scenes and references to Pearl Harbor, FNGs, battle buddies, and wounded warriors (before they were called that).

We are transported from a quiet and cold December 24, 1953 in a family home in the American heartland to another Christmas Eve nine years earlier fighting Nazis in France and Belgium. The cold helps us appreciate being warm.
"This hole was the seventh Virgil had chipped out of the frozen ground and covered with tree limbs since they had walked through Bastogne. Virgil didn't want to dig any more of them. Moving to another position meant shouldering weapons and gear, carrying it who knew how far or for how long, digging another hole, and building another shelter, working up the sweat that, in the subzero winter, caused a man's uniform to freeze to his back. Frostbite had taken more men off the line than wounds from enemy fire. Some of the freezing guys had been able to get out before the encirclement. Those that hadn't had already lost toes and fingers, some even their feet and hands."
Hanks fans, and there are legions, will no doubt want to pick up this collection of American short stories as a holiday gift. 

Be aware that the language is saltier than anything you'll likely hear on screen in a Tom Hanks film.

Each short story has strong characters, compelling dynamics and a reference to a typewriter. Tom Hanks loves typewriters – mechanical wonders, each connected to countless stories in the lives of the people who tapped their keys.

Funny and sad, loose and tense, cool and warm as a fireplace, these stories are an exquisite slice of Americana. Read "Christmas Eve 1953" and be prepared to have the story stay with you for a long time.

In a 2011 post, "Faith, Fear and Tom Hanks," I said Renaissance man Tom Hanks "transcends genres." Add "gifted short story writer" to his list of skills.

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