The shitty Christmas novel is a grand tradition most popular authors fall prey to eventually. Richard Evans has made a cottage industry out of sappy tales of holiday cheer, while no less than Glenn Beck has also contributed a big ball of goo to the genre, with a book apparently about a magical sweater or something. Gregory Maguire doesn’t wholly escape the pitfalls of the holiday novel with Matchless, a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” but he comes closer than most.
Maguire originally wrote the short story to be performed on NPR on Christmas Day 2008. For the published edition, he’s added his own illustrations, as well as an intriguing afterword on his inventions for the tale and his interpretation of its themes. Like most of Maguire’s tales, this one builds around a familiar story—that of a young girl who freezes to death on a chilly night after being unable to sell any matches—instead of reinventing the edifice entirely. Maguire’s tales respect the original property but tell stories that fall through the cracks within that property: His Wicked works largely because it looks at The Wizard Of Oz from a new perspective, and deepens the politics of Oz without betraying the original story.
Maguire has less to work with in “The Little Match Girl.” He’s moved the action from New Year’s Eve to Christmas Eve, and changed the little girl’s vision of her grandmother to a vision of her mother, but he’s otherwise left Andersen’s slight tale intact. That leaves him fewer loose threads to play with than usual, but he manages to find the one left dangling by the tale and tie it in to an invented story of a creative young boy whose life intersects with that of the match girl in an unusual, highly coincidental way.
Considering Andersen’s original tale is largely about how God’s grace is bestowed upon the poor, particularly during the holiday season, Maguire makes a convincing case for the coincidence that drives much of his plot. It also helps that said coincidence provides a rare spot of warmth in Maguire’s oft-cold body of work. The whimsical illustrations provide a nice counterpoint to the frozen world of the story, creating tiny bursts of warmth within the tale’s chilly heart.
In the end, Matchless is perhaps too slim to deserve the full Christmas-book treatment, but it’s a worthy effort at creating a new story to stand alongside the classic Christmas tales of old. And at least it doesn’t feature any poor children buying shoes for their dying mother to wear when she meets Jesus.