Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story by Wally Lamb

Wishin' and Hopin' by Wally Lamb“Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story” by Wally Lamb. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 1994.

Wally Lamb’s novella “Wishin’ and Hopin’” is a trip down memory lane. For anyone old enough to remember the 1960’s, this story is as familiar as lunch counters and “duck and cover” drills.

Felix Funicello (cousin of the iconic Annette Funicello) is 10 years old in 1964. In school at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School, Felix is in the middle of fifth grade when his teacher, Sister Dymphna, is pushed into taking an extended leave of absence after an unfortunate run-in with a bat. The fact that Sister Dymphna was certain the bat was the devil himself was less of concern to Felix than the question of who would take over teaching the class in her absence. Little did he know that their substitute teacher would shake things up at the staid Catholic School.

Madame Marguerite Frechette, originally from Quebec, is a substitute teacher with the heart of a theater director. As the school approaches winter break, Madame Frechette is excited about having her class perform tableaux vivants for the school’s Christmas program. Needless to say, hilarity ensues.

Live lambs, fights between girls over who gets to be Mary (ending up in the beheading of the doll that was cast as the baby Jesus in the tableaux, requiring Felix jump into that role), and several attempts at raising and lowering the Star of Bethlehem all make the program memorable for readers. What makes it memorable for Felix, however, is when he takes his final bow and notices his father sitting separately from the rest of the family near the back, next to a woman with large hair. When Felix waves at his dad and the woman waves back, Felix just thinks she doesn’t realize that he is waiving at his father, not her. Read to the end to find out the truth about this big-haired lady.

The true gift of this story is its ability to take one back; to the early 1960’s, to elementary school Christmas pageants, and to 5th grade – that liminal time between childhood and puberty when everyone seems in on a secret that poor Felix just can’t quite grasp. When the cook at his father’s bus depot lunch counter tells an off-color joke that gets a big laugh, Felix remembers it. Unfortunately, he also decides to share it with a live television audience when his Junior Midshipmen Group is invited to visit the Ranger Andy show.

This novella is full of memorable characters; from Felix himself to his classmates Rosalie Twerski (whose extra credit posters adorn the walls of their classroom) and Zhenya Kabakova, a new addition to their class who emigrated from the Soviet Union. The dialogue and setting is realistic and even the epilogue will makes these characters real people who just may be your neighbor.

Readers will enjoy the trip.

Deana Cunningham is the Branch Manager at May Memorial Library. She can be reached at dcunningham@alamancelibraries.org.