Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, by Patricia C. McKissack, and Frederic L. McKissack. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1994.
Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters shows life on a Virginia plantation in 1859. Authors Patricia and Frederick McKissack begin their narrative by describing the preparations for the Christmas season and the celebrations that follow. The differences in resources, lifestyles, and traditions between the plantation owner’s family and the slaves provide a stark contrast.
The Big House is full of light and color and elegance and beauty at every turn. There’s delicious food and warm hospitality. But along with the carols and gifts, there’s talk of John Brown’s raid, slave uprisings, secession and war.
In the slave quarters nearby, there is no such grandeur for the families who live in cramped one-room cabins with dirt floors. Yet despite the harshness of their lives, a joyous celebration is going on-eating, singing and dancing. Some slaves who were sold away are reunited with those they love, if only for a day.
The McKissacks make sure readers see the slaves’ hardships, but they do not sensationalize the issue. The authors take great care as they define the relationships between the slaves and some of the characters in the big house.
The final scenes in the book foreshadow things to come: in the slave quarters a mother tells her son not to speak of running away, because she has heard rumors of freedom coming. In this way, the authors have balanced some of the hardships of their existence with the hope of freedom on the horizon.
The illustrations are done in a realistic style and yet have much color and ambience, which adds greatly to the stories in the Big House and the slave quarters. This book is recommended for readers 8-13, but adults can also appreciate the story.