Two Christmas books particularly lifted my spirits this year. One is a massive scholarly compendium, The Oxford Handbook of Christmas, edited by Timothy Larsen. The other (my subject here) is small and slim (66 pages, with lots of space between the lines of text): Mom and Dad in Heaven, by Alf K. Walgermo, illustrated by Øyvind Torseter and translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin. Here’s how it begins:
Dear God, I went back to school today. It was weird being back in school. So quiet. The boys looked down at their desks. The girls looked at each other. I didn’t know what to say. We played hopscotch on our lunch break without arguing or smiling.
Mom and Dad in Heaven consists of brief paragraphs like this, explicitly or implicitly addressed to God in the voice of Mary, a small girl whose parents have been in an accident. Mary’s father, we gather, was killed instantly; her mother survives for a day or so, and Mary is able to see her briefly in the hospital, brought there by her grandfather; she will be cared for by her grandparents going forward.
The accident takes place in October, not too long before Halloween and All Saints’ Day:
God, have Mom and Dad become saints in heaven? Are they up in heaven with you, God, praying for us down here on earth? I hope they’re not frozen when they pray. You must remember to turn up the heat when it’s chilly in heaven. Maybe you can make some hot chocolate or light a nice log fire.
Soon Mary is caught up in preparing for the Nativity Play to be performed on Christmas Eve; she will be Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her school-friend Jens (whose mother died of cancer the year before) will be Joseph. More than half of the short book centers on Advent and Christmas itself, on the preparations, the festivities, the worship, the exchange of gifts, and all that the season signifies, from the viewpoint of a bright, questioning, but also blessedly “ordinary” girl who has suffered a terrible loss and is trying to make sense of it, and whose efforts to flesh out the church’s teachings (as she has received them), whose questions and fears and confusions, will not seem at all implausible to parents like me who remember such conversations with their own children.
Writers who attempt what Walgermo does here can so easily go off the rails. They can be cloying, twee, annoyingly agenda-driven. Instead, Walgermo has achieved a small miracle of tact, insight, and gentle humor. In some respects, the unguarded musings of children are not very different from the thoughts of their grandparents in their seventies, awake in bed in the middle of the night. And Torseter’s illustrations perfectly match the spirit of the text.
Of course, Walgermo wrote Mom and Dad in Heaven in a setting where the public status of Christianity is in some ways quite unlike what it is in the United States. I’d love to have a conversation with him about the book’s reception in Norway. A newspaper editor and the author of a number of books, Walgermo visited the offices of Christianity Today and Books & Culture some years ago, and I had a chance to meet him then (our only such opportunity to date, alas). He wrote several pieces for B&C, and Lisa Cockrel wrote a piece about him for the magazine.
I remember thinking at the time—almost ten years ago now—how I would like to hear more from and about Scandinavian Christians, not least because Wendy and I have been members of the Evangelical Covenant Church (with roots in Sweden) since 1978. For all the huffing and puffing about “the global church,” our perspectives tend to be terribly parochial, whether tending toward the “conservative” or the “liberal.”
Ah, well. On this Christmas Eve, please remember the twelve days of Christmas. There is still plenty of time for you to acquire a copy of Mom and Dad in Heaven to read (perhaps aloud) this Christmas, not to mention during Christmases to come.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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