Christmas book review: I Saw Three Ships

I’m a sucker for Christmas books.  One of the joys of this time of year is revisiting my favorites — Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the various collections of Christmas verse and art that I’ve acquired over the years.   And this year, I’ve stumbled upon another marvelous book for my collection.

Elizabeth Goudge’s I Saw Three Ships is a petite book — at sixty illustrated pages, it’s short enough to read in one sitting (if you don’t have a toddler in the vicinity, that is).  It’s a book for kids, though — as with most great children’s literature — adults can get just as much out of it.  It’s a  charming story of a little girl named Polly Flowerdew who lives with her two maiden aunts in a seaside town at the start of the nineteenth century.  Polly wants to leave the house unlocked on Christmas Eve, believing the old country custom that says that the Wise Men may come calling.   Her aunts, who are far less whimsical and trusting, are against the idea.  (“There are no wise men.  I have never met a man yet who was not foolish,” pronounces her Aunt Dorcas.)   But Polly’s idealism softens them, and by the end of the evening, three wise men have indeed come calling … along with a miracle that no one in the town could have expected.

It’s a hard story to write about, because to say more about the plot will give it away.  Suffice to say that it’s a true gem of a book, with some very moving symbolism around the three wise men and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  At times, the author’s humorous characterizations reminded me a bit of Roald Dahl (of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame), though without the mordant tone.  And it’s amazing how the author manages to weave the story together with such grace and in such a short number of pages.  She is very subtle in her storytelling, which is why this is really a book for older kids/preteens, though you could read it aloud to younger kids and pause to explain some of the less obvious bits.   All in all, it’s a beautiful and uplifting read for the holiday season.

And yes, it is inspired by the old carol, the lyrics of which are featured at several points in the book.   Here’s a great rendition of it by Sting (is it just me, or does he never seem to get old?).  It’s hard to think of a more joyous holiday song than this one.

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