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Isabel Bolton: The Christmas Tree

While there is a clear plot to this novel – and a tragedy at the end – the style is still the impressionistic portrait of her previous novel, Do I Wake or Sleep. Hilly Danforth is looking after her grandson, Henry, in New York. Her son – Larry – Henry’s father, has divorced his wife Anne and Anne has recently married a war hero, Captain Fletcher. Larry is in a gay relationship in Washington DC with Gerald Styles. At the start of the story which, like Do I Wake or Sleep, takes place in a relatively short time frame, Anne and Captain Fletcher are traveling across the country to stay with Mrs. Danforth and Henry for Christmas. Henry is convinced that a hero like Captain Fletcher will fly in to La Guardia but the weather means, in fact, that they have a difficult journey by train. Meanwhile, Larry may or may not be coming – though his mother sends him a telegram to discourage him – but, in any case, seems determined to break off his relationship with Gerald and leave DC, perhaps to go and live in New York. Gerald, of course, is very upset by this. And, of course, Mrs. Danforth and Henry have to get the traditional Christmas tree.

Things, of course, go wrong. Anne has considerable doubts about her marriage to Captain Fletcher and starts regretting her divorce from Larry. (It is not clear whether she knows that Larry is gay.) Gerald follows Larry to New York and gets to the Danforth house before Larry (who has gone out to get drunk.) Meanwhile, Mrs. Danforth is finding Henry a bit of a handful. The whole thing climaxes at the Danforth house, where Henry rejects his father and shows his clear preference for Captain Fletcher. There is a row and the whole thing ends in tragedy.

Not only does Bolton expertly convey the complex and shifting relationships between the main characters in a way that many much longer novels fail to do, she also does this against a picturesque backdrop of a snowy New York Christmas. This vivid image of people in the snow and the Christmas bustle coupled with Mrs. Danforth’s eagerness to have a traditional Christmas makes for a picture worthy of any impressionist painter.

Publishing history

First published 1949 by Charles Scribner’s Sons