“Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale”
Author: G. Neri
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Price: $16.99 (Hardcover)
Only a year ago, G. Neri had a nice success with “Tru and Nelle,” a novel based on real and imagined events in the childhood friendship of Truman Capote and Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville.
The two were friends, played word games, wrote stories together, and solved a mystery together, with young Truman taking the role of Sherlock.
In that novel, Truman’s father and mother, Arch Persons and Lillie Mae, are still married, but selfishly neglect young Truman who is, to say the least, a sensitive child.
When “A Christmas Tale” opens, two years have passed. It is ten days before Christmas, 1935. Truman, now 11, has been taken to New York City. Nelle and Big Boy, Truman’s cousin, are standing by the road, waiting for Truman, who arrives in the back seat of a big Packard, driven by “a dark-skinned man in a fancy tan suit, smoking a fat cigar.” Lillie Mae, now calling herself Nina, has divorced Arch and married Joe Capote, a Cuban businessman, and Arch is suing for custody.
The court case gives Nelle and Tru a chance to reunite briefly, then, having chosen to live with Nina, Truman is off again to New York City.
When he next arrives, another two years later, Truman is exhausted, hungry, dirty and in a tattered uniform. He has run away from the military school his mother put him in, hoping to toughen him up, make a real boy out of him. Truman, a complete misfit, had been bullied and, he hints, sexually molested by his classmates in the style of an English public school. Truman shudders and says “the things they did to me.”
Nelle, unsurprisingly, is still the tomboy, rejecting pressures to adopt femininity although now almost 12.
Neri writes: “They both stood there, staring into some alternate universe where Truman dressed as a soldier and Nelle dressed like a girl.”
At one point they kiss. It is unsatisfactory, and each seems to intuit the true feelings of the other.
Nelle says “That’s okay, I know I’m not a boy.”
It becomes clear rather quickly that although this is a Christmas story, Neri has not presented the reader with a box of candy.
In Depression-era Alabama, the economy is in shambles and no one has much. Then, Truman’s family home burns down, and the Carters must move out to the family farm.
As in the first novel, Neri pays considerable attention to Mrs. Lee’s poor mental health. She “suffered from melancholia—a deep-rooted neurosis that caused her to behave erratically when she was depressed.” She also suffers from insomnia, sometimes playing the piano all night long, and is sent to Pensacola occasionally for a “rest.”
In a trial based on the real-life incident that inspired To Kill a Mockingbird, just before Christmas an innocent father and son, African Americans, are arrested for murder. A.C. Lee defends them, but justice in Alabama is hard to come by.
Even with all of these problems, there is still some humor, and everyone makes an effort to have a Christmas in spite of it all.
Sook makes her fruitcakes, of course. They decorate a beautiful tree, and both families, Lees and Carters, share what they have with the numerous less fortunate, black and white.
Written, we are told, for 10- to 12-year-olds, this book has no excessive violence or overt sexuality, but it is far from a saccharin Christmas story. What 12-year-olds will make of it is beyond me, but Neri clearly knows his audience.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.