Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Robert May’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which later became a song most of us recognize, and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss—these and other stories are now classics of the Christmas season.
As for Thanksgiving, well, that beloved holiday definitely plays literary second-string to the Yuletide season. Most likely, if someone asked us to name any novel or short story written about that fourth Thursday in November, we’d furrow our brow, shrug, and say “I don’t know.” Even the Thanksgiving poem, later made into a song, “Over the River and Through the Wood,” is often mistaken for a piece about Christmas, probably because it mentions a sleigh and snow.
Wishing to find some fiction about Thanksgiving, I recently ransacked my public library for novels and short stories about this holiday. I found more than 20 picture books for youngsters with the word “Thanksgiving” in the title (some of which were quite good), a couple of contemporary romance novels set around Turkey Day, and four books about the history of Thanksgiving and its traditions, one of which we’ll consider later.
But no classic tales about our quintessential American holiday.
On arriving home, I opened my laptop and searched for “classic Thanksgiving short stories.” Here I finally struck … well, I won’t call it gold. Or even silver.
But I did find some old, worthy stories by known authors that shared some common themes.
Helping the Downtrodden
Several of these tales centered on the poor and those who brought them gifts and comfort on Thanksgiving Day.
“The Night Before Thanksgiving” by Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909) features the frail and elderly Mary Ann Robb, who lives alone in a small house that she’s on the verge of losing. Though she has spent her younger years helping her neighbors when she could, they’ve now largely abandoned her, encouraging her to go to the poor house where she might receive better care.
But not everyone has forgotten her.
On the night before Thanksgiving, when she’s out of food and with only enough firewood to last the night, John Harris comes knocking on the door. This orphaned boy whom she had once welcomed into her home has returned from the Dakotas, bringing her gifts and food, and the promise that with his newly acquired wealth, he’ll be able to provide for her and keep her in her house. “And you’re going to have everything you need to make you comfortable long’s you live, Mother Robb!”
“She looked at him again and nodded, but she did not even try to speak. There was a good hot supper ready, and a happy guest had come: It was the night before Thanksgiving.”
In “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen,” William Sydney Porter (1862–1910), who wrote under the pen name O. Henry, reversed the situation found in Jewett’s story. Here we meet the down-and-out Stuffy Pete and the Old Gentleman, who for years has annually treated Pete to a Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant while refraining himself from partaking of the food.
On this particular occasion, Stuffy Pete has already stuffed himself with turkey and fixings, the recipient of charity provided by two elderly women who always feed one poor person on this special day. When the Old Gentleman arrives, Stuffy Pete is so overloaded from his feast that he can barely move from his park bench, but he gamely follows his benefactor to the restaurant and downs another gargantuan meal while the Old Gentleman looks on with satisfaction. Within a few minutes of leaving the establishment, Pete crashes to the sidewalk, and his indigestion sends him to the hospital.
Unbeknownst to Pete, the Old Gentleman is also admitted to the hospital, half dead from starvation as a result of his own poverty.
As in most of his stories, we can find entertainment and pleasure not only in O. Henry’s surprise endings to his stories, but also in his prose. Here’s a sample from the opening paragraph:
“There is one day that is ours. There is one day when all we Americans who are not self-made go back to the old home to eat saleratus biscuits and marvel how much nearer to the porch the old pump looks than it used to. Bless the day.”
A Good Deed Rewarded
“Bert’s Thanksgiving” by J.T. Trowbridge (1827–1916) also ends with a twist.
Young newsboy Bert Hampton is trying to sell his papers on Thanksgiving Day when he meets an old man who seems hungry and poor but buys one of his papers. The boy “was a generous little fellow, and any kindness shown him, no matter how trifling, made his heart overflow,” and so he invites the stranger to dine with him in a restaurant.
During their meal of chicken soup followed by squash pie, Bert reveals that his father has recently died, leaving the family penniless. His mother is working as a nurse in hopes of someday buying a home, and his two sisters are “boarded at a good place” and still in school. But given their situation, Bert has left school to earn money and try to help his mother.
At the end of the meal, the old man writes out an address on a scrap of paper and invites Bert to come and see him soon, telling him he knows a few people in business. When in the next week Bert pays him a visit, the boy discovers that Mr. Crooker, his dinner companion, is actually a well-to-do real estate mogul. He gives Bert a job in the office, with the idea of someday turning the business over to him, and after meeting Bert’s mother, this lonely old man offers her a house if she will make it a home not just for her family but will allow him to live there as well.
When first meeting Mr. Crooker in his office, Bert stammers, “I—I thought—you was a poor man.”
“I am a poor man,” said Mr. Crooker, locking his safe. “Money doesn’t make a man rich. I’ve money enough. I own houses in the city. They give me something to think of, and so keep me alive. I had truer riches once, but I lost them long ago.”
Crooker’s words “I am a poor man … Money doesn’t make a man rich” lie at the heart of “Bert’s Thanksgiving.”
Lit Picks for the Younger Set
The above stories are relatively short and ideal for a family read-aloud, but the little ones may have trouble following them. Here are three picture books suitable for the K-3 gang.
Alice Dalgliesh’s “The Thanksgiving Story” won a Caldecott Honor and is an excellent account of the first Thanksgiving. We follow the Hopkins family as they sail on the Mayflower to present-day Massachusetts and with the help of an Indian tribe survive as a colony.
‘The Thanksgiving Story’
Atheneum Books, 1954
Hardcover: 32 pages
“Fat Chance Thanksgiving” tells the story of Carla, an inner-city girl whose apartment house is destroyed by a fire. The book she saves from the flames, “A Pilgrim Thanksgiving,” inspires her to face tribulations as did the Pilgrims. When they move into another apartment, Carla organizes the tenants to throw a Thanksgiving feast in the building’s lobby. From all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, they bring fried okra, arroz con pollo, Irish stew, lasagna, and other dishes to this meal, but even more they share all-American camaraderie.
‘Fat Chance Thanksgiving’
Albert Whitman & Company, 2001
Hardcover: 32 pages
In Charlotte Herman’s “The Memory Cupboard: A Thanksgiving Story,” young Katie and her parents travel to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. While Katie’s admiring a gravy boat treasured by her grandmother, it slips from her fingers and smashes into pieces on the floor. Katie breaks into tears, but wise old Grandma escorts her to what she calls her memory cupboard, where she keeps other broken objects with special meaning for her. She tells Katie a few stories about these possessions, and then says: “Sometimes, no matter how careful we are, things we’re fond of get broken. But things are just things. People are more important, especially granddaughters.”
‘The Memory Cupboard: A Thanksgiving Story’
Albert Whitman & Company, 2003
Hardcover: 32 pages
Time for Some Festivity
Finally, if you’re looking for a potpourri of all things Thanksgiving, try Melanie Kirkpatrick’s “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience.” Here are chapters devoted to the first Thanksgiving, to Massachusetts before the arrival of the Pilgrims, to the wild enthusiasm more than a century ago for Thanksgiving Day football games—“In 1893, about one hundred twenty thousand athletes played in five thousand Thanksgiving games across the country….”—and all manner of anecdotes about this unique holiday.
At the end of her book, Kirkpatrick includes a chapter on old-fashioned recipes and menus as well as “Readings for Thanksgiving Day,” a chapter rich in letters, speeches, and books from times past. Some of these Thanksgiving ruminations are ideal for sharing with your guests before carving up that turkey.
‘Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience’
Encounter Books, 2016
Hardcover: 272 pages
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving. As we celebrate, let’s pause to count our blessings for friends and family. And if we add a bit of literary spice to this menu of gratitude and food, we’ll only improve the flavor of this feast.