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D.G. MARTIN COLUMN: ‘A Fool for Christmas’ available in print

By D.G. Martin

Imagine the Bethlehem Christmas story set in a shopping mall in eastern North Carolina.

Think of a pet store in that mall as a manger scene and the manager of the store as a Joseph figure who takes care of a young homeless woman about to deliver a child on Christmas Eve.

Now you are ready to experience the lovely seasonal story, “A Fool for Christmas,” by North Carolina’s celebrated author Allan Gurganus.

Gurganus, a Rocky Mount native now living in Hillsborough, burst on to the national scene in 1989 with the publication of his debut novel, “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” It sold more than 4 million copies and has become an American classic.

Set in the 1980s, the 99-year-old Lucy Marsden, who was married when she was 15 to the then 50-year-old Col. William Marsden, tells the story of her marriage to the Confederate veteran, his wartime experiences, and the entertaining and poignant routine of her daily life.

Gurganus usually writes slowly and methodically, but what he writes is worth the wait. His latest book of three novellas, “Local Souls,” took readers back to Lucy Marsden’s Falls, the small fictional eastern North Carolina town that Gurganus keeps alive with his writing.

Sometime soon, Gurganus promises, he will end his decades-long work on “An Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church,” which I bet will teach us more about life in Falls.

Meanwhile, every Christmas season he shares “A Fool for Christmas,” at a reading hosted by a favorite bookstore, the Regulator Bookshop in Durham.

This year the store was packed as Gurganus, an actor at heart, brought the crowd to tears. As he reads he takes on the character of Vernon Ricketts, the pet store manager who is the lead character and narrator.

Vernon is a fool for Christmas who cannot resist a call to take care of a homeless teenager in the mall, keep her warm, and help her hide from the security officer, who is dedicated to getting such undesirables out of the mall.

Where did “A Fool for Christmas” come from? How did Gurganus come to write this story that draws on the Biblical account of Christ’s birth and draws out the same sort of deep feelings?

In 2004 NPR’s “All Things Considered” commissioned Gurganus to write a short seasonal story to read on “All Things Considered.” He says he wrote the story in just two weeks, overcoming his usual slow and deliberate writing style. Beginning with the kind pet store manager and thinking about the pregnant lost girl, he worked to develop those characters. As the characters came into focus, the story followed.

NPR aired Gurganus’s reading of the story on Christmas Eve, and it has remained posted on NPR’s website ever since.

Gurganus changes the story a bit every year. He makes adjustments to take account of technological developments, closed restaurants, and other changes in a typical mall. He may change a word or two. But the essential story stays the same, a manger birth story that reminds us of the humble circumstances of the first Christmas.

It is one that can bring tears the same way Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” sometimes does.

Interestingly, “A Fool for Christmas” had never been published in a printed edition. This year, however, that changed. For the first time, the Regulator offered a printed edition of the story published by Durham’s Horse and Buggy Press with the cooperation of Duke University, the repository for Gurganus’s papers. Gurganus, also an artist, illustrated the new book. Priced at $12, it sold out quickly. But Horse and Buggy Press promises to have more copies available to local bookstores.

If you, like me, think this little book could be a treasure, give your local bookstore a call, or reach the Regulator at 919-286-2700.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch” at 11 a.m. Sunday and 5 p.m. Tuesday on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel at 8 p.m. Tuesday and other times.