Alex Haley's "A Different Kind of Christmas" is the sort of tale that asks to be read aloud. An adventure set during the days of the Underground Railroad, the elusive network of blacks and whites that helped Southern slaves escape to freedom in the North in the turbulent decades before the Civil War, it is the story of Fletcher Randall's conversion from scholarly defender of "his Southland" to avowed abolitionist and outlaw conductor on the legendary railroad.
The elements of a classic tale are here, the kind that warrants re-reading year after year because it affirms, without sentimentality, an uplifting sense of our national character and moral identity. Unfortunately, the master storyteller of "Roots" and the equally fine "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" is present only in sporadic flashes of style, and disturbing moral questions raised by his latest tale.
Fletcher Randall is an appealing hero, a symbol of the many white people who, as one black character acknowledges, risked all, even their lives, because they didn't believe slavery was right. A sophomore at the college of New Jersey at Princeton, Fletcher has a taste for moral philosophy, a passion for books and a great curiosity about different people. Curiosity leads him to accept an invitation to visit the Philadelphia home of his new dormitory mates, the Ellis brothers. The Ellises are anti-slavery Quakers and though determined to hear nothing derogatory about the South or slavery, Fletcher can't resist the chance to find out more about people whom he knows his father would hate, sight unseen.
The Ellis brothers, true to their egalitarian heritage, introduce Fletcher to Mr. Fortas, a free black man and prosperous sail maker in Philadelphia. Fletcher is outraged when circumstances force him to shake the man's hand. But the Quakers are not finished with him. After visits to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, they take him to an anti-slavery meeting where he looks upon the whip-scarred backs of escaped slaves. Furious with the Quaker family for confronting him with situations so contrary to his belief, Fletcher, nonetheless is deeply disturbed by what he has seen.
A professor introduces Fletcher to the stirring words of former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass: ". . . No rich, no poor, . . . no black, no white. . . . One country, one citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny for all." Convinced then of the humanity and intelligence of black people, Fletcher Randall, heir to the fourth-largest plantation in Ashe County, N.C., volunteers to help the Philadelphia area Underground Railroad.
His first assignment pits his new commitment to the abolition of slavery against his loyalty to his parents and makes him wonder if he will ever learn to live with himself again. The assignment: to help in the mass escape of 12 slaves from his home county, six of them from his father's own plantation. The second half of the book is the adventure story of how this escape--planned for Christmas Eve--is brought off: obstacles overcome, brushes with disaster and final triumph.
"A Different Kind of Christmas " is meant to delight and inspire "readers of all ages," as the publisher puts it, but Haley quickly abandons any real attempt to appeal to adult readers. The rich vocabulary of the opening pages, which evokes the 19th-Century setting and invites reading aloud to a favorite child, gives way to simple sentences and pat plottings likely to bore even younger readers. Haley's reliance on stock characters and descriptions vitiates the power of Fletcher's crisis and conversion and the suspense of his mission. The road between Princeton and Philadelphia, for example, is a "scenic way"; but we are given no hint of what the landscape looks like--whether wooded or open, flat or hilly.
The "ethnic diversity" of Philadelphia, which piques Fletcher's curiosity about different people, is suggested more in the repetition of that phrase than in descriptions of the look or sound of immigrants. Fletcher's politically ambitious father is given to "senatorial" warring, his mother to weeping. Our sympathy for these cardboard characters is almost non-existent, and our empathy for Fletcher's conflicting loyalties is likewise limited. Fletcher's own conversion from slaveholder to abolitionist is intellectualized, never dramatized or rendered for us. We see his embarrassment and anger at the Philadelphia incident, but we don't know what emotions or ideas they force him to wrestle with. He explains, "candidly," to the black sail maker why he returns and asks to shake the man's hand, but we never hear that explanation. And surely this is something readers ought to get from the hero's own lips.
Such conversions did take place during the abolitionist years, and hairbreadth escapes from slavery were not uncommon. Haley is due some credit for writing about an era, an institution whose heroism is too often ignored. In "A Different Kind of Christmas," however, Haley has done little more than suggest the outlines of the classic tale that remains to be written about the Underground Railroad and its mystery train.