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Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels

When Jean Shepherd died this Fall (10/15/99), we not only lost one of America's greatest humorists and a Christmas icon, we also lost a man who has discretely changed how all of us remember childhood.  In fact, his influence is so subtle, that you may not even know who he was; but I guarantee, you do know him.  Jean Shepherd is the narrator of, and the stories from this book are the basis for, the instant classic yuletide movie, A Christmas Story.

Most of the episodes from the film are here, including, of course, the Red Ryder BB Gun Saga, the Leg Lamp Incident, The F Word Debacle, etc. and Shepherd's contribution to our collective psyche is that we remember both these events and similar events from our own childhoods in Capital Letters now.  In the same way, and at the same time, as Tom Wolfe was getting us to think, not of radical chic and the right stuff, but of Radical Chic! and The Right Stuff!, Shepherd was likewise taking the seemingly common stuff of boyhood memory and elevating it to mythic status.  So for most of us, when we look back into the mists of memory, we don't simply recall "the time we broke the window", rather we summon forth "The Broken Window Incident".  At least, I know I do.

Read the paragraphs below & see if you haven't subconsciously internalized the cadences, impossibly graphic immediacy and recall, mild exaggerations for comedic effect and epic tone in your own recollections:

First on getting ready to leave the house in Winter:
    Preparing to go to school was like getting ready for extended Deep-Sea Diving.  Longjohns,
    corduroy knickers, checkered flannel Lumberjack shirt, four sweaters, fleece-lined leatherette
    sheepskin, helmet, goggles, mittens with leatherette gauntlets and a large red star with an Indian
    Chief's face in the middle, three pairs of sox, high-tops, overshoes, and a sixteen foot scarf wound
    spirally from left to right until only the faint glint of two eyes peering out of a mound of moving
    clothing told you that a kid was in the neighborhood.

    There was no question of staying home.  It never entered anyone's mind.  It was a hardier time, and
    Miss Bodkin was a hardier teacher than the present breed.  Cold was something that was accepted,
    like air, clouds, and parents; a fact of Nature, and as such could not be used in any fraudulent
    scheme to stay out of school.

    My mother would simply throw her shoulder against the front door, pushing back the advancing
    drifts and stone ice, the wind raking the living-room rug with angry fury for an instant, and we
    would be launched, one after the other, my brother and I, like astronauts into unfriendly Arctic
    space.  The door clanged shut behind us and that was it.  It was make school or die!

    Scattered out over the icy waste around us could be seen other tiny befurred jots of wind-driven
    humanity.  All painfully toiling toward the Warren G. Harding School, miles away over the tundra,
    waddling under the weight of frost-covered clothing like tiny frozen bowling balls with feet.  An
    occasional piteous whimper could be heard faintly, but lost instantly in the sigh of the eternal wind.
    All of us were bound for geography lessons involving the exports of Peru, reading lessons dealing
    with fat cats and dogs named Jack.  But over it all like a faint, thin, offstage chorus was the building
    excitement.  Christmas was on its way.  Each day was more exciting than the last, because
    Christmas was one day closer.  Lovely, beautiful, glorious Christmas, around which the entire year

Then on being given a writing assignment while in the grip of BB-gun mania:
    Miss Bodkin, after recess, addressed us:

    "I want all of you to write a theme. ..."

    A theme!  A rotten theme before Christmas!  There must be kids somewhere who love writing
    themes, but to a normal air-breathing human kid, writing themes is a torture that ranks with the
    dreaded medieval chin-breaker of Inquisitional fame.  A theme!

    "...entitled 'What I want for Christmas,'" she concluded.

    The clouds lifted.  I saw a faint gleam of light at the other end of the black cave of gloom which had
    enveloped me since me visit to Santa.  Rarely had the words poured from my penny pencil with
    such feverish fluidity.  Here was a theme on a subject that needed talking about if ever one did!  I
    remember to this day its glorious winged phrases and concise imagery:

        What I want for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing that
        tells time.  I think everybody should have a Red Ryder BB gun.  They are very good for
        Christmas.  I don't think a football is a very good Christmas present.

And, of course, back comes the response from Miss Bodkin:

    "You'll shoot your eye out.  Merry Christmas."

At any rate, if you've never read Jean Shepherd before, or tragically never got to hear his radio show or see his PBS series, I urge you to give this hilarious book a try.


Grade: (A)


Jean Shepherd Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Jean Shepherd
    -AUDIO: Red Ryder Nails The Cleveland Street Kid (The Jean Shepherd Show (WOR) 1974/12/24)
-ESSAY: The Old Man at Christmas: The humorist Jean Shepherd—whose writings inspired A Christmas Story—left a surprisingly deep impression on American culture. (Daniel M. Lavery, December 19, 2023, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Betrayal: Jean Shepherd and “A Christmas Story” (Lee Vinsel, DECEMBER 21, 2020, LA Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:

If you don't already own the film, you can buy it here:

    -AUDIO : Jean Shepherd Downloads
    -Jean Shepherd--A Tribute to Jean Shepherd
    -Jean Shepherd Web Site (Jim Sadur)
    -Jean Shepherd Page (Bob Kaye)
    -Jean Shepherd - Author - Humorist (Famous Hammond Personalities)
    -Max Schmid's Jean Shepherd Tape Catalog (Purchase audio tapes)
    -ESSAY : Jean Shepherd an Appreciation : "Silent Key" for Jean Shepherd 1921-1999  By Carl Lindemann
    -ARTICLE: Jean Shepherd: Radio's Noble Savage (Edward Grossman, Harper's Magazine, January, 1966)
    -ARTICLE: Jean Shepherd: The Night People vs Creeping Meatballism (Mad Magazine, March-April 1957,  Volume 1, Number 32)
    -ARTICLE: Jean Shepherd's Rally:  The Art Of Milling, or Go Fly A Kite (Alan Bodian, The Village Voice)
    -ARTICLE: Waves and Signals: Greenwich Village, Jean Shepherd &  the Web Today (Lorraine McConaghy)

    -Unofficial Christmas Story Tribute Page
    -AUDIO FILES: sounds are wave-format, 8-bit, mono, 11kHz sampling rate
    -Peter Billingsley Site
    -ARTICLE: 'A Christmas Story' Story  Jean Shepherd's Hammond holiday tale finds a loyal following (Sean Callahan, Chicago Daily Southtown)
    -REVIEW: A Christmas Story (1983)