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“Marley was dead, to begin with”. Charles Dickens doesn’t waste words setting the tone of A Christmas Carol. The bleakness of Marley’s solitary death, and the bitter miserliness of his partner, Ebenezer Scrooge soon establish a dark and lonely atmosphere that lends itself to haunting. Indeed, on Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by ghosts, and Marley, chained by his greed, is the first.
It’s hard to believe that a book first published in 1843 is still gripping and compelling. Although there are contemporary references that modern readers will miss, Dickens’ words paint a vivid picture of poverty and social injustice on one hand, and of generosity and goodwill on the other. Truly astonishing is that the chilly, hateful Scrooge is transformed into a sympathetic and even likable character, for whom the reader can feel pity and dread. Visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the events of his childhood and young adulthood raise regrets about the path he has taken. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows how even those with very little share goodwill for the holiday, and how stark the fate of the poor and neglected really is. The final spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, is truly terrifying.
The watercolor and gouache illustrations by P.J. Lynch complement the story well. Dark colors create a sense of foreboding. Because the illustrations are overall so dark and bleak, it is noticeable when light appears. Candles, lamps, and fires appear in many illustrations, sometimes shedding light and sometimes burnt out. In addition to full page illustrations and occasional double page spreads, Lynch uses the corners and margins of the pages to blend the illustrations into the words, so it feels like you are stepping right into the story. The door knocker that Scrooge sees transformed into Marley’s face is right in the middle of the page, and its appearance there almost made me jump! The phantoms filling the air during Marley’s visit flee in misery across two pages, powerful enough images to stop your breath as you take in the words and pictures together. The black draperies of the faceless and silent Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, inspire fear and dread.
Because there are so many adaptations of A Christmas Carol, it’s hard sometimes to remember its origin as not just a Christmas story but also a ghost story. The secular message of goodwill, of celebrating family, and of generosity, renewed the spirit of Christmas in England and America, but without the wonder, pity, and terror inspired by the four spirits that led to Scrooge’s redemption, it would be a thin tale indeed. While A Christmas Carol is certainly powerful enough to stand on its own, Lynch’s illustrations add another dimension, literally drawing us into the story, making it an unforgettable reading experience. Although most libraries will have A Christmas Carol in their collection, it’s absolutely worthwhile to add Lynch’s illustrated version to academic and public library collections and school library media centers. Highly recommended.
Review by Kirsten Kowalewski