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Jeffrey Cummins
Ex-Mas Song

In this re-telling of A Christmas Carol as a fictionalized memoir, Justin R. must make a life-or-death decision: he can give up his stony heart to learn about forgiveness and work the ways of recovery to gain a fleshy heart or he can wreck his life against the obstacles of stress, his ex-wife, and guilt over his past failures.

The carol becomes a song in this surprising and heartfelt riff on Dickens’s beloved Christmas ghost story, updated for an era of antidepressants, big box stores, and soul-crushing cubicle jobs. But as in the Victorian era, faith, hope, charity, and the possibility of changing one’s heart offer a troubled individual a path forward. Rather than a miser, the Scrooge figure is Justin R., a divorcee whose attempt to end his life lands him in a St. Louis recovery center during the holidays. As his meds calm him, and an ex-wife insists they’re now back together, Justin is visited by a beloved figure from his past, his grandfather, and faces visions, at bedtime, of Christmases both long ago and trailer-park contemporary. What’s in doubt is his future: can he commit to living when he feels “small,” like there’s nothing he “loved enough to be dedicated to and excel in for its own sake”?

Lovers of Dickens will enjoy picking out surprising correspondences and Easter Eggs (a “Boz” haunts the pages). Unlike many authors inspired by A Christmas Carol, however, Cummins avoids a point-by-point recreation, instead finding fresh approaches to familiar beats and favoring meds over ghosts, all while still embracing Dickens’s themes and eye for social problems, as Justin contemplates the desperation of addiction, adults’ ambivalence for Christmas (“But we knew the truth. It was for kids”), the lives of other patients (one man is “an empty pit of metabolism”), and more.

Ex-Mas Song is hefty in length, and Cummins can’t resist chatty characters and some repetitive prose. But it moves swiftly as Justin, in brisk and unfussy prose, plays Christmas trivia games with other patients, contemplates his childhood in a therapy session or considers the faith of King David, and eventually finds his way to committing to a life worth living. The “song”’s final verse inevitably involves a cemetery, but Cummins upends expectations as the story makes its way toward the traditional transformative ending.

Takeaway: Heartening Christmas epic of finding faith and hope when life doesn’t feel worth living.

Comparable Titles: Annie Rains’s Through the Snow Globe, Richard Paul Evans’s A Christmas Memory.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: B-