Over Thanksgiving break, my husband and I and our three sons sat down to watch A Christmas Story, a 1983 Christmas film that none of us had ever seen in its entirety. A Christmas Story is often considered the top holiday-themed movie of all time. When I tell people that I have never seen this movie, they look at me like I’m from another planet, and my sons’ friends have started giving them the same unbelieving stare.
So this weekend we snuggled on the couch in the basement with popcorn and blankets and started our education on classic Christmas filmery for white folks. Based on a book by Jean Shepherd, the movie is set in a small Indiana town in the 1940s, and tells the story of a young boy, Ralphie Parker, who makes the case to his parents that they should buy him a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.
One should likely avoid thinking about work while spending time with one’s family, but I just couldn’t help it. We were watching that apparently classic scene in which nine-year-old Ralphie, the main character, fantasizes about owning the Red Ryder BB Gun. Ralphie’s daydream involves a Wild West kind of scenario, in which bandits surround his house and his family hides under the kitchen table. Decked out in sequined chaps and cowboy boots, Ralphie moseys up to the kitchen window, aims his gun at the villains (several of whom are dark-skinned), and fires. Ralphie hits his targets right in the buttocks, the masked burglars screech and fall to the ground with satisfying thumps, and Ralphie spits out the window and smiles at the heap of villainy in his backyard. Then he is returned to the boring reality of his breakfast table, where he sighs and begins scheming a way to make his daydream of gun ownership and heroism come true.
This scene was designed for little boys like my own. It’s comic and fantastical and absurd, and my sons chuckled at the exaggerated action. It’s a far cry from Mortal Kombat or Rambo, of course, and I refrained from lecturing them about America’s racialized media, our pervasive gun culture, and the myth of redemptive violence.
Still, watching that scene, and considering all the other violent fantasy worlds into which advertisers and videogame-makers and movie producers regularly invite my children, I found myself especially grateful for a forthcoming Herald Press novel, Jacob’s Choice, by Ervin R. Stutzman. When family entertainment providers assume the hilarity of violent fantasy worlds, I’m glad that Herald Press is bringing us alternative stories.
Jacob’s Choice, the first novel in the Return to Northkill series, is a historical novel based on the story of an Amish family in Pennsylvania during the French and Indian War. Jacob, his wife (whose name has been lost to history), and his children experienced in reality what Ralphie Parker did in his daydream: people bent on doing his family harm. Urged on by a French military commander, Native American warriors encircled the Hochstetler farm in September 1757 and set the house on fire. Huddled in their home, Jacob’s sons did what Ralphie did in his daydream sequence: they reached for their hunting rifles.
I won’t say what happened next, so that if you don’t know the story of the Hochstetler attack you’ll have to read the book to find out. I will say that Jacob’s Choice offers readers a very different perspective on violence than most media offerings. Based on actual events, the novel offers a radically alternative definition of heroism and bravery than most movies and books. It narrates the internal conflicts of eighteenth-century Anabaptists who chose nonresistance because of their understanding of Christ’s call to love their enemies.
The Return to Northkill series will also offer a very different portrayal of race than many pop culture offerings. While Native American warriors enact the central act of violence in the first novel, in the second novel readers will be invited to view the white Amish settlers and the French and Indian War through their eyes. Violence is violence is violence, no matter who does the killing. Still, understanding why oppressed people sometimes resort to violence can be a step toward preventing it in the future.
Jacob’s Choice is now available for preorder at the Herald Press website. An expanded edition, which will include both the novel and additional historical information such as maps, photographs, genealogies, and historical accounts of the Hochstetler attack, will be available for preorder soon. Both versions of the novel will be released February 8, 2014. Many, many other titles from Herald Press center around the decision to love one’s enemies, including these:
We at MennoMedia are excited about Jacob’s Choice and its potential among a wide readership, and we are optimistic that it will cultivate conversations about the tough but blessed choice of nonresistance.
Meanwhile, I still can’t say that I have seen A Christmas Story. We stopped watching the movie about halfway through. I wish I could say it was because my sons were so offended by the film’s hallowing of violence. But they just got bored. We ended up watching a Peanuts holiday special instead.
I guess friends will still look at us in disbelief when we say we have never watched A Christmas Story. That’s okay with me. Still, I love to imagine a day in which we could look back at them with the same wide eyes and say, “What?!? You’ve never read Jacob’s Choice?”
Valerie Weaver-Zercher is managing editor of Herald Press trade books at MennoMedia.