As noted yesterday, Dakota Christmas, the Kindle Single by Joseph Bottum, was something of a surprise hit. As a magazine writer and editor Bottum had written a number of Christmas pieces over the years and as a result was contacted by Amazon about the possibility of mining this material as part of the Kindle Single program. The 7,500-word piece met with unexpected success:
“Dakota Christmas” has struck a chord. One recent week it was No. 1 for sales in Amazon’s Kindle Singles and in nonfiction, and No. 1 for all sales in all books on Amazon in the categories of Christmas, memoirs and religion.
As I write it is the #2 Kindle Single just below Dean Koontz and about Stephen King.
So what is Dakota Christmas?
A memoir of childhood Christmases on the South Dakota plains. By turns sweet and comic, sentimental and serious, Joseph Bottum’s “Dakota Christmas” is an instant Christmas classic. In this beautifully written account of the mad joys and wild emotions of Christmas for children, Bottum captures the universal spirit of the season even while he recounts his memories with a sharp particularity that brings them alive for readers.
It is rather hard to describe actually. It is a memoir and an exploration of a holiday with all its cultural and emotional nostalgia and detritus; an exploration of memory and childhood and an essay on the Christmas essay. I think the key lies in the “universality through particularity” noted above. It is in describing and thinking about his own experiences with Christmas that Bottum in turn flushes out our own experiences, memories, emotions and conceptions.
The writing is literary, the author has a 10,00 book library he is finally able to shelve in one place now living in South Dakota, and richly detailed. His detailing his unique experiences and relationships almost automatically causes the reader to explore his own past. He recalls the toys, books, food and music of the season – and the events, places and people; he recalls the details but struggles to feel the emotions in quite the same way. A Bottum notes, memory is in many ways our least reliable tool but really our only tool for this task.
Throughout is the thread of place and the plains of the Dakotas are a character themselves. And it is in this place that Bottum is reminded of the underlying meaning and truth of the season.
Readers with a similar background will find the essays nostalgic and full of cultural touch-points. Those with a different background will enjoy an evocative tour through a different time and place. Anyone with a fondness for Christmas will enjoy an interesting exploration of the holiday through a variety of perspectives. I am not sure what makes an “instant Christmas classic” but think “by turns sweet and comic, sentimental and serious” is a great description of this enjoyable collection of essays.