What is the inspiration for the story?
After we had set up our Christmas tree, decorating it with shiny glass ornaments and brilliant bulbous lights, a beaten cardboard box would be hauled down from our cold attic. The box once contained a black and white Zenith TV, but now housed a nativity set, complete with shepherds, magi, and farm animals. My seven brothers and sisters and I would pull wads of dried masking tape from the box and open it, removing a pad of blown glass and cotton angel hair which we would roll out slowly on my motherís buffet table. A handmade wood stable was placed on the batting, then gently, gently, we removed all the crèche figurines from their newspaper wrappings. There were two figures of Mary, one blonde, one brunette, and we would take a vote as to which one we would use that year. We would arrange all the figures amongst the snow blanket and stable, and then the real fun would begin. My brother Joe always separated the kings and the shepherds on either side of the stable. Once they were set, he would run to his room and bring down his collection of army men and soldiers and add them to the figurines. When my mother wasnít looking he would stage a battle, the shepherds versus the magi. The shepherds usually won, we all liked to root for the underdogs. My sister B. C. was a Barbie doll fanatic and she would collect all her dolls, strip them down to their undies, and swathe them in strips of toilet paper, creating her own version of Mid-Eastern garb. They, too, would be added to our nativity scene. Megan had large collection of plastic toy animals. An avid animal lover, she was the sister who, when we played house, always chose to be the dog. Her animal collection not only included circus and farm animals but also included an array of fierce dinosaurs. Of course, these animals would be added to our nativity scene, and of course, Joe would always position the tyrannosaurus rex so that it hovered over the most innocent lamb. We played with our nativity set, creating and enacting imaginary stories and games with the figurines. It was a fantasy escape for us during the holidays.
My father suffered from a chronic illness and was often hospitalized during Christmas. Sometimes I missed him so much that I would stand in his closet between his suits just so that I could smell him and imagine his arms around me. In my story, The Man of the House at Huffington Row, Francis and Katherine Mary OíShea are dealing with the loss of their father at Christmas. Katherine Mary wears her fatherís worn, red scarf constantly because it still carries her fatherís scent. The story takes place during the 1930ís, a time when people lived in closely connected immigrant neighborhoods and knew each otherís business quite intimately. Francis is charged to watch out for his younger sister, for he is the man of the house now, and when she disappears, he knows where she has gone to deal with her grief. He finds her at the city cathedral gazing at the magnificent crèche, fantasizing about the story of the mother and father and the Babe.
The emotional base of The Man of the House at Huffington Row stems from my own childhood, even to the choirmaster antagonist, who is based on a cold, unfeeling choir teacher who told me in first grade that my voice was so bad I must only mouth the words to songs. Like Francis and Katherine May, I experienced the incredible gift that a loving community gives to children when adults choose to care about children who are not their own. I hope that our society has not lost the capacity to give such a gift. And, I hope that in your lives you have had the experience of that kind of love. Merry Christmas and may you have a joyous New Year.
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Book Description HMH Books for Young Readers, 1998. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # P110152015809