Chet Williamson,
illustrated by James Rice,
Pennsylvania Dutch
Night Before Christmas

(Pelican, 2000)

Chet Williamson leaves behind his usual, somewhat creepier subject matter for Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas, a charming and loving look at both the classic Christmas poem and the Pennsylvania Dutch country where he makes his home.

Just as in Clement C. Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas," a family is settling down to sleep on Christmas Eve. Nothing is schusslich (moving around), and all is well -- until they get a rude avakening -- er, awakening. "There vas crashing and banging and -- could it be true? / Did our ears deceive us, or vas that a moo?"

It is indeed a "moo" -- eight of them, to be precise, four cows and four steer all pulling an irascible-looking man in black riding on a plow and armed with switches and a sack. It's the Belsnickel, the Pennsylvania Dutch Santa Claus figure who almost literally brings down the house with his visit.

Not as fierce as he may seem, the Belsnickel interviews the children, finds that his switches will go unused in this household, and empties his sack. Then he takes off, promising "I'll send over Stolzfus your broke roof to fix."

Williamson accomplishes two difficult tasks. First, he captures the cadence of the original poem; the lines scan practically perfectly and the rhymes flow naturally without sounding forced. To be sure, the back-to-front syntax of Pennsylvania Dutch carried into English helps, but still, how he got them so good wonders me -- I mean, the rhymes are remarkably well-executed. Second, he conveys the dialect without making the poem incomprehensible, providing explanations where necessary. The text begs to be read aloud, and it reads well. There's a further guide to pronunciation in the back, along with more detail on the Belsnickel and a recipe for shoo-fly pie.

It's important to note that "Pennsylvania Dutch" does not necessarily mean "Amish," although the Amish are a subset of the Pennsylvania German culture. The Belsnickel is depicted as an Amish elder, but otherwise, the broader category of Pennsylvania Dutch should be assumed. (One clue is the hex sign on the barn; the Amish do not use them.)

James Rice's warm and restrained pen and ink and watercolor illustrations capture the zaniness of the poem without losing respect for his subject, and the layout is excellent, meshing the pictures with the text. It's hard to imagine anyone not being captivated by the eight winsome cattle!

Certainly those with a Pennsylvania Dutch background will get the most out of Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas but between Williamson's rolling text and Rice's entrancing illustrations, it's a sure bet that any listener won't even think about rutsching around!

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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