‘Kris: The Legend Begins’
By: J.J. Ruscella with Joseph Kenny
Rating: Five out of five bookmarks
There have been many versions of Santa Claus’s origin story told throughout time, from the earliest folklore of Father Christmas to modern television holiday specials and animated films.
A new spin on the Santa mythos, J.J. Ruscella’s “Kris: The Legend Begins” is a story that reveals heartbreak, hardship, yet persistent hope through the 13-year-old eyes of the boy who would one day become the infamous toy maker adored by children around the world.
When his mountain village is beset by plague and burned asunder, Kris’s mother takes him and his seven siblings out into the world to find them new homes.
It is Kris’s responsibility to leave each of his brothers and sisters on the doorsteps of various homes, as much as it destroys him inside to part the family. But it is their only chance for survival in a harsh world.
When his mother passes on, Kris is shortly thereafter taken in by a compassionate carpenter, who apprentices Kris in woodworking. Kris finds a sense of family with the carpenter, his tenderhearted wife Gabriella and the lovely baker girl for whom Kris is beginning to feel more than just friendship.
Kris is determined to perfect his woodworking skills so he can save enough money to reunite his estranged siblings by next Christmas Eve, but he finds that the homes his siblings now belong to may be better than what Kris could provide for them.
Can Kris truly find happiness and a healed heart, or will pain continue to follow him along his uncertain path?
Kris is a unique portrayal of Santa Claus, even as he acquires the iconic elements of his renowned façade throughout the story (his long beard, bright red coat, toy sack, etc.)
Ruscella breathes raw humanity into Kris, making him a vividly real person and not just a personification of childlike joy, the archetypal “jolly old elf.”
We see Kris struggle with his faith in humanity and his anguish over having lost his family. He goes through all the familiar complications of adolescence, balancing the part of him that is still a child with the emerging adult man.
Yet for all the suffering Kris endures, he has an uncanny way of bringing light into people’s hearts through the whimsy of his handmade wooden creations as well as his caring nature.
There is a wonderful blending of historic elements that tie in cleverly and give depth to the story. There really was a case of bubonic plague in the 1700s that swept through the northern European regions, which is the setting of this novel.
On his journey, Kris encounters a village of the Sami tribe (the indigenous people who dwell in the Arctic regions), who herd and tame wild reindeer to help with labor.
They are parallel to Santa’s fairy tale elves — the leader of the village even wears a tall pointy hat.
These pieces of reality enhance the magic present in the narrative. It is a magic that stems from the human spirit and belief rather than fairy-dust and spells.
“Kris: The Legend Begins” gives us an imaginative, briskly paced journey that isn’t obnoxiously sentimental or saccharine. It deserves to become a holiday classic and should find a home on the bookshelf of anyone who needs a story of finding undying light in the cold winter nights of our lives.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.