Author: Glenn Beck
Publisher: Threshold Editions
Year Published: 2008
Number of Pages: 284
Amazon Price: $10.99
Reviewed by Lisa Torcasso Downing
_The Christmas Sweater_ may well be one of those books you love to hate and hate to love, particularly if you are both a) Mormon and b) a literature aficionado. The tale of an ungrateful teenage boy who discovers the true meaning of life—and of himself—is the sort of parable that we’ve heard from the mouths of our parents and grandparents since we were knee-high. True, but sometimes stale. Beck’s version goes like this:
The untimely death of a father robs a young boy and his mother of a dependable livelihood, and the family’s standard of living plummets. The boy’s freefall into poverty is rivaled by his descent into self-absorption. He is angry—at God because He took his father away; at his mother for not being able to provide like his father; and at his grandparents because they are unable to save him and his mother from humiliating want. Although he cannot express these feelings to his family, he is able to bargain with God, reasoning that since God took his father, God should arrange for his mother to save enough to purchase an expensive Christmas gift, the shiny new Huffy bicycle of his dreams.
Red, of course. Instead, his mother presents him with a sweater, an ugly, itchy, homemade sweater that is almost identical to the expensive ones in the store. To the boy, the sweater is a symbol of all that is wrong with his life. Unable to hide his disappointment and resentment, his mistreats his mother, mishandles the sweater, and misses the point of Christmas entirely. He spends the next 200 pages learning how the lonely and unmarked road he chooses can become his road to redemption.
Fortunately, he has loving mentors, both human and divine, who show him the way and lead both the boy and the reader to an understanding of redemption.
Yes, _The Christmas Sweater_ will likely make you cry, might even make you think about—or rethink—how you handle hardships and treat the people in your life. Yes, its ending is uplifting and full of comfort. But this little novel is more a sentimental journey than an emotional one, largely because the words on the page never really paint the boy’s experience in the heart and soul of the reader. We don’t discover this boy; we read about him. We don’t experience with him the discovery of a new world, but are told about the world as he experiences it. This, unfortunately, prevents the parable from reaching its potential in spite of the novel’s climb to the top of the best seller charts.
But best seller charts are measures of something other than great writing. They are a symbolic pulse of the public psyche, and Glenn Beck has taken that pulse and responded well. Naturally _The Christmas Sweater_ does not have the literary depth of a Steinbeck novel. Glenn Beck is not a great fiction author, even with the assistance of a pair of helpers, namely Kevin Balfe and Jason Wright, to whom he likely owes the professional structuring of the book. Beck is a talking head. His tale does, indeed, *talk* to its readers at a level that many need—and I don’t mean its fifth grade reading level. Rather, I mean that Beck communicates on a surface level. He is plain spoken. While there are surprises, there are not layers. When you put the book down, you know precisely what lesson Beck intends you to receive. Even so, the message will likely resonate. It did with me.
After all, _The Christmas Sweater_ succeeds in celebrating the very human need to hope, to believe—to search for light in the midst of darkness, to trust in God and find comfort in redemption, to discover ourselves and take joy in living. Yes, this novel is sentimental, but there can be something as satisfying in reading a sentimental story as in indulging in a bar of dark chocolate. Maybe it isn’t the best thing for us, but it salves just the same.
Of course in the short run, dark chocolate can also lead to heartburn, and, in the long run, to obesity. The book isn’t for everyone. If sentimentality tastes more like cheese to you than chocolate, you won’t want to pay for this read.
However, I predict that the Mormon audience will revel in the way that Beck uses *gentile* characters to preach Mormon ideology with abandon and will find a certain solace in knowing that so much of the way we think about the purpose of life and spirituality is resonating deeply with Baptists and Methodists and Catholics and all manner of believers in between. If nothing else, Beck’s _The Christmas Sweater_ contains an accidental lesson for Mormons that the core of our philosophy is recognized as joy by some of the very people who might otherwise criticize us.
This Christmas, go ahead. Buy Beck’s novel for your mom. But don’t buy it for your English professor. If your mom is an English professor, buy her chocolate. Or cheese.