A Different Kind of Christmas by Alex Haley is a novella that takes place before the start of the Civil War and focuses on the moral growth of Fletcher Randall, the son of a plantation owner. Fletcher’s father is a senator, well-respected and esteemed within his North Carolina community. Fletcher himself is struggling, going to school at Princeton, teased by the other northern students, and unable to make friends until some Quakers approach him with an opportunity to spend a weekend with their family.
Much of this novella seems to be focused on teaching and informing rather than telling a story. Because Fletcher is a college student, the author contrives to explain the reality of the Underground Railroad experience, its history, and the risks people took to help free the slaves. I couldn’t help but feel that the book is like a history lesson and not emotionally driven. Fletcher’s conversion to feeling sympathetic for the slaves seems an abrupt change. He does some research and there’s no internal debate, no resistance, no emotional struggle. Turning on his family’s traditions would take more time, especially considering the dangers and loss that would inevitably result from such a sharp and uncompromising departure.
For the reader who knows little to nothing about the Underground Railroad, the significant role Quakers played in helping slaves get to the north, this book may be informative but I’m not sure that information is more important than telling a good story when writing fiction. For someone who did such a powerful job of sharing history through a strong story, as evidenced in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and, of course, Roots, this novella was a disappointment. And for the reader who is looking for a sympathetic, even schmaltzy seasonal story, this book will still be a disappointment.